Friday, September 23, 2011

Coroner Fans Flames of Intrigue


Isn't that a great word? An oddly satisfying use of consonants in a testosterone-laden way that actually helps sound out the meaning of the word.

You've heard of things like the internal combustion engine, of course. But have you hear of spontaneous combustion? Things just bursting into flames? No accelerant, no fuse, no ignition, no detonation device?

How about spontaneous combustion in a human being? Somebody simply erupting into fire?

Dr. Ciaran McLoughlin, the coroner in West Galway, Ireland, officially ruled Thursday that a death suffered just before Christmas 2010 was indeed spontaneous human combustion (SHC).

Michael Faherty was found dead on the floor in his home, his torso and limbs burned, along with the flooring beneath him and the ceiling above him, but nothing else. Except a fire in the fireplace.  Which fire investigation experts concluded hadn't set the body alight.

Eerie, huh?

And gross.

Of course, not everybody believes spontaneous combustion is possible in humans. Sure, mix some chemicals together improperly, and you can trigger a flammable reaction. But the human body just does not incinerate itself. For one thing, physiologically, we're 70% water. It doesn't make sense.

Apparently, Victorians believed that SHC was God's punishment of alcoholics.  Charles Dickens incorporates a drunk in his novel, Bleak House, that ends up cremating himself. And cases around the world have been documented of human torsoes burned to a crisp while nothing else is. But this is the first known ruling in an official report by an esteemed coroner in a developed country of SHC.

There was no sign of foul play, no suicide note, or anything that could have been used to set Faherty on fire. After Dr. McLoughlin exhausted all of his other options, the only thing left was the weirdest diagnosis he'd ever contemplated.

And for which he had no alternative verdict.

As you might expect, I'm skeptical of Dr. McLoughlin's diagnosis. According to published reports, Faherty hadn't been seen for a couple of days. What if he'd fallen in his home, with the fireplace ablaze, he'd knocked himself unconscious, and a spark or ember from the fire somehow shot out of the fire and ignited his clothes as he lay on the floor? Maybe he'd had a heart attack, and never revived as the flames consumed his body.

But that doesn't explain why the flames stopped after burning through his body, does it? After all, since our bodies are mostly water, would they provide enough combustible material to satiate a fire? Why didn't the flames continue along the floor, and ignite nearby pieces of furniture? Yes, the floor beneath Faherty was burned, which would be expected, and the ceiling above his burning body, which would also be normal. Apart from those two areas, however, it certainly sounds like the flash of fire that consumed Faherty's body did not have the energy to migrate any further.

So... we're left to wonder: is Dr. McLoughlin a rogue coroner with an unbalanced sense of reality, recklessly willing to throw professional credibility to the wind?

Or does SHC really exist?

Long-time readers of my blog know that I don't drink alcoholic beverages. Or smoke.

And this story has given me one more reason not to start!

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