The Irish are Burning

The story comes out of Ireland, after a coroner’s inquest determined that the cause of death for 76 year old Michael Faherty of Galway died of spontaneous combustion.

According to The Irish Times, the facts are these:

  • On Dec 22, 2010, a smoke alarm alerted Mr. Faherty’s neighbour and he called the fire department
  • Mr Faherty had been found lying on his back with his head closest to an open fireplace.
  • The fire had been confined to the sitting room. The only damage was to the body, which was totally burnt, the ceiling above him and the floor underneath him.

The testimony:

  • Forensic experts found that a fire in the fireplace of the sitting room where the badly burnt body was found was not the cause of the blaze that killed Mr Faherty.
  • They could not determine the cause of the blaze.
  • The court was told that no trace of an accelerant had been found and there was nothing to suggest foul play.
  • there was nothing to suggest that anyone had entered or left the house.

The Verdict:

  • Death by Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC)

The question must be asked—is that a reasonable verdict?

The only information I have is from media reports, all of which seem to present thE same information as the Irish Times, which is woefully short on details. I do don’t have access to the actual coroner’s report, so all I can do is examine the information that I have.

First of all, the World Health Organization has a document titled International Causes of Death, and Spontaneous Combustion is not on that list, so it brings into question accuracy the final verdict. So, whether this is the actual verdict or merely a reporter’s version I have no idea.

Dr McLoughlin claimed that in his research he used a book by Professor Bernard Knight as a reference. Dr. Knight is certainly well known and qualified as a forensic pathologist, however he has authored or co-authored 12 medico legal textbooks. The reports give no indication which of these books he used in his analysis, again making research into this difficult.

What we do have is a number of skeptical analyses of the existence of SHC. While a quick search turns up several of these, one of these is from investigator Joe Nickell in the Skeptical Inquirer. In the article he quotes a standard forensic textbook “Kirk’s Fire Investigation

Most significantly, there are almost always furnishings, bedding, or carpets involved. Such materials would not only provide a continuous source of fuel but also promote a slow, smoldering fire and a layer of insulation around any fire once ignited. With this combination of features, the investigator can appreciate the basics-fuel, in the form of clothing or bedding as first ignition, and then furnishings as well as the body to feed later stages; an ignition source-smoking materials or heating appliances; and finally, the dynamics of heat, fuel, and ventilation to promote a slow, steady fire which may generate little open flame and insufficient radiant heat to encourage fire growth. In some circumstances the fat rendered from a burning body can act in the same manner as the fuel in an oil lamp or candle. If the body is positioned so that oils rendered from it can drip or drain onto an ignition source, it will continue to fuel the flames. This effect is enhanced if there are combustible fuels-carpet padding, bedding, upholstery stuffing-that can absorb the oils and act as a wick. (p305)

More information on wick effect.

A dead pig, which was chosen as pigs have a similar fat content to humans, was wrapped in cloth and set alight. It burned for five hours before the experiment was ended, and the fire largely consumed the pig’s body, including its bones, yet there was little heat damage to other items that had been placed in the room with it.

The fire produced by the wick effect is not a blaze; it’s more of a slow-burning smoldering. It gets very hot locally, possibly up to 500oC (note: the 2000+oC temperatures that some claim are needed to burn a body are not required), but it does not produce huge flames that could set other things alight. This is the reason why the burning stays localised. Also once the fat has been used up, the ash produced acts as an insulator for whatever was touching the corpse – such as the chair it is in. This too prevents other items igniting as the burning wanes.

Of course if other things were to ignite and the whole room went up in flames, it would just look like an ordinary house fire and no one would be looking at it as a case of Spontaneous Human Combustion.

The wick effect is most likely the true explanation for the way the body burns after ignition. It should be pointed out though, that in the QED experiment, petrol was used to ignite the pig’s corpse. This is because corpses, pigs’ or humans’, are not easy to ignite. This leaves us with the most problematic area in explaining apparent cases of SHC: how the bodies ignite in the first place [emphasis mine].

However, in this case, a strong suspect for cause of the ignition would be a spark from the fireplace. Here we have all the standard ingredients for human combustion, with no need to need for it to be ‘spontaneous’, a word that in this context has connotations of ‘no external cause’.

There are numerous shows on TV that are based upon forensic science, even if the ‘science’ is exaggerated that raise expectations, perhaps too high of these experts  (the CSI Effect). In real-life, coroners’ decisions about causes of death can result  in imprisonment or law suits involving potentially innocent people, or the non-prosecution of the guilty. Here in Canada, the case of Dr. Charles Smith, whose dishonesty lead to a large number of false accusat5ions and imprisonments, demonstrates the importance of high quality testimony and results in coroners’ inquests. Decisions that rely on non-existent  causes of death such as SHC, can only add to doubts about the expertise of those in such an important position.

In this case, I hope it is a case of inadequate reporting, not a problem of lack of skepticism  in a professional.

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One Response to The Irish are Burning

  1. Pingback: Kraken Self-Portrait | PEI Curmudgeon's Blog

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