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21st October 2011

Investigators baffled by spontaneous combustion death

The first Irish case of human spontaneous combustion baffles investigators.
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An inquest into the puzzling death of a pensioner in Galway, Ireland last December has concluded with a verdict of spontaneous combustion, the first recorded case in Irish history.

Forensic experts were bemused when they were called to the home of Michael Faherty to investigate his sudden death. They found severe fire damage to his body and the ceiling and floor directly above and below the deceased, despite no traces of an accelerant or an ignition source. Although Mr Faherty was found near to an open fireplace in his home, the assistant fire chief officer told the court he was convinced that the fireplace was not involved in Mr Faherty’s death. Since there was no other adequate explanation for cause of death, Kieran McLoughlin, the West Galway coroner, therefore returned a verdict of spontaneous combustion: the first of its kind in the country.

The phenomenon of human spontaneous combustion has long been a source of fascination amongst scientists and the wider public. A wide variety of explanations have been suggested, including the “wick effect” whereby the subcutaneous fat is exposed to a small external ignition and catches alight, consuming the body and the immediate environment. Many believe dropped cigarettes are the cause of such events, although critics point out that cigarettes do not burn at a temperature high enough to cause such aggressive flames.

One such critic of the spontaneous combustion phenomena is Mike Green, a retired professor of pathology. Speaking about the Michael Faherty case, Professor Green claimed that the term spontaneous combustion is redundant, as some form of ignition is always necessary. He discredited those who believe such events are divine intervention, instead choosing the “practical, mundane explanation.”

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