Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

Irishman died from spontaneous human combustion, inquest finds

The victim's daughter, Mairin Faherty, outside Coroner's Court

A man who burnt to death in his own home died from spontaneous human combustion in what is believed to be the first case of its kind in Ireland.

Michael Faherty (76) -- also known as Micheal O Fatharta -- died as a result of the phenomenon, spontaneous human combustion, according to west Galway coroner Dr Kieran McLoughlin.

He said it was the first time in his 25 years of investigating deaths that he had returned such a verdict.

An experienced garda crime scene investigator and senior fire officer both told Mr Faherty's inquest in Galway that they could not explain how he came to be burnt to death. Nor had they come across such an event before.

Assistant chief fire officer Gerry O'Malley said fire officers were satisfied that, after a thorough investigation, an open fire in Mr Faherty's fireplace was not the cause of the blaze which led to his death.

No trace of an accelerant was found at the scene and there was no sign that anyone else had entered or left Mr Faherty's home at 64 Clareview Park, Ballybane, Galway city.

The inquest heard that the smoke alarm in the home of Mr Faherty's neighbour, Tom Mannion, had gone off at about 3am on December 22 last year.

In his deposition, Mr Mannion said he went outside and saw heavy smoke coming from Mr Faherty's house.

He banged on the front door, but got no response and then banged on the door of another neighbour. Gardai and the fire brigade arrived quickly on the scene.

Garda Gerard O'Callaghan said he had gone to the house after the fire had been extinguished and found Mr Faherty lying on his back in a sitting room, with his head closest to an open fireplace.

The fire had been confined to that and the rest of the house sustained only smoke damage. No accelerants had been found and there was nothing to suggest foul play.

In reply to the coroner, Gda O'Callaghan said the only damage was to the remains, to the floor underneath him and to the ceiling above. The body had been totally burnt.

Dr McLoughlin asked the garda if he had ever seen anything like this and he replied "no". The inquest heard that fire officers were unable to determine the cause or the origin of the fire that killed Mr Faherty.

Asked if he had ever seen anything like it, Mr O'Malley replied, "I can't say that I have."

Pathologist Professor Grace Callagy noted in her post-mortem findings that Mr Faherty had suffered from Type 2 diabetes and hypertension but she concluded he had not died from heart failure.

His body had been completely cremated, and because of the extensive damage to the organs, it had not been possible to determine the cause of death.

The coroner said he was satisfied nobody had entered or left the house.

While a fire had been burning in the fireplace in the home, he was also satisfied that the fire itself was not the cause of the blaze that had burnt the deceased.

Dr McLoughlin said: "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."

Afterwards, Ms Faherty's daughter, Mairin, said that the family were satisfied with the extent of the investigation.

Factfile

Theories on bizarre self-ignition that some say is myth

Spontaneous human combustion describes cases of a living human body being burnt without an apparent external source of ignition.

Many scientists regard it as a myth while other theories suggest 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).

Another theory is that the fire begins as a result of a build-up of static electricity inside the body or from an external geomagnetic force exerted on the body.

There have been about 200,000 reported cases dating back 350 years but not all have been thoroughly investigated.

The first written account came from the Danish anatomist Thomas Bartholin in 1663, who described how a woman in Paris "went up in ashes and smoke" while sleeping. The straw mattress on which she slept was said to be unmarked by the fire.

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