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Irish Man Dies of Spontaneous Combustion?

"I was lighting up the driveway every couple of steps."

A body is found burned at home. Investigators cannot find the source of what started the fire, except...the body itself.

Such is the most recent case -- there have actually been many reported over the last 300 years -- of an Irish man who was burned to death. After a year of investigation, forensic analysts couldn't find an alternative source of the fire. Conclusion: he spontaneously combusted. BBC has more:

Michael Faherty, 76, died at his home at Clareview Park, Ballybane, Galway on 22 December 2010.

[...]

Forensic experts found a fire in the fireplace of the sitting room where the badly burnt body was found had not been the cause of the blaze that killed Mr Faherty.

The court was told that no trace of an accelerant had been found and there had been nothing to suggest foul play.

The court heard 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.

[...]

"This fire was thoroughly investigated and I'm left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation," he said.

One of the curious trademarks of cases labeled spontaneous combustion is that much of the surrounding area is left untouched by the fire -- it seems to only be contained to the body and things it was immediately touching.

But can a body really spontaneously combust? This is a popular question on the web. There is a Wikipedia post on spontaneous human combustion and "How Stuff Works" by Discovery has written on the topic, along with several other sites. Charles Dickens even wrote a novel -- Bleak House -- on the premise that excessive intake of alcohol could result in spontaneous combustion. And there are also a slew of YouTube videos on "SHC"; the Discovery Channel investigated the issue in a five-part series.

How about this video from a special on Spike? The host of the show notes, "Mainstream science says it couldn't happen. But mainstream science, has been wrong before":

The Wikipedia article records that not everyone dies if they are spontaneously ignited -- it's not always an engulfing flame. One such case was of Debbie Clark in 1985 who recounted the event:

"It was me. I was lighting up the driveway every couple of steps. As we got into the garden I thought it was funny at that point. I was walking around in circles saying: 'look at this, mum, look!' She started screaming and my brother came to the door and started screaming and shouting 'Have you never heard of spontaneous human combustion?'" Her mother, Dianne Clark, responded: "I screamed at her to get her shoes off and it [the flashes] kept going so I hassled her through and got her into the bath. I thought that the bath is wired to earth. It was a blue light you know what they call electric blue. She thought it was fun, she was laughing."

According to "How Stuff Works", many theories exist as to how spontaneous human combustion could occur:

One of the most popular proposes that the fire is sparked when methane (a flammable gas produced when plants decompose) builds up in the intestines and is ignited by enzymes (proteins in the body that act as catalysts to induce and speed up chemical reactions). Yet most victims of spontaneous human combustion suffer greater damage to the outside of their body than to their internal organs, which seems to go against this theory.

Other theories speculate that the fire begins as a result of a buildup of static electricity inside the body or from an external geomagnetic force exerted on the body. A self-proclaimed expert on spontaneous human combustion, Larry Arnold, has suggested that the phenomenon is the work of a new subatomic particle called a pyroton, which he says interacts with cells to create a mini-explosion. But no scientific evidence proves the existence of this particle.

But, scientific skeptics say there has to be a source of the combustion aside from the body. BBC reported pathologist Mike Green as saying that this source, such as a lighter or cigarette, was probably just too badly burned to be found.

[H/T Gawker]

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