Ballybane, Galway City: Spontaneous Human Combustion Killed Man: Coroner: UPDATED

23 Sep

NEWS UPDATE:

THE demise of pensioner Michael Faherty, who died at his house in Galway just before last Christmas, was unique in Irish history.

An inquest on Thursday ruled that the 76-year-old burned to death as a result of spontaneous human combustion, where a live person catches fire without any external source of fire.

A fire in the grate in his sitting room where the badly burnt body was found was discounted by forensic experts as the cause of the blaze.

It was a unique finding in Ireland and a first for West Galway coroner Dr Ciarán McLoughlin, who said he had never encountered such a case in the 25 years that he had been investigating deaths in the region.

“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.

Assistant chief fire officer Gerry O’Malley told Dr McLoughlin that two experienced fire officers believed the fire had not spread from the fireplace. They could not determine the cause of the blaze.

Mr Faherty’s daughter, Maureen, said her family was satisfied with the investigation and accepted the inquest’s findings.

However, she added: “Unfortunately, it doesn’t provide us with any real explanation.”

Yet the strange phenomenon is not without historical precedence elsewhere. Spontaneous human combustion is mentioned in the Bible and there have been more than 200 reported cases in the past 300 years.

The first reliable collection of evidence on SHC is contained in De Incendis Corporiss Humani Spontaneis, a book published in 1763 by the French writer Jonas Dupont.

He became interested in the phenomenon after reviewing the 1725 trial of the husband of Nicole Millet who was accused of burning her to death. He was acquitted after a surgeon convinced the court that her death had been caused by SHC.

One of the most notable modern cases concerns the death of American Mary Reeser, whose charred body was found in her home in 1951. Damage to her apartment in Florida was slight even though her corpse was reduced mostly to ashes. The police report claimed the 67-year-old widow’s dressing gown had caught fire but no flame source or accelerant was found.

More recently, in England in 1982, SHC was suggested as a cause of death at the inquest into the death of Jean Saffin, 62. Relatives said they saw her burst into flames in her north London home but coroner Dr John Burton said there was “no such thing” as SHC and recorded an open verdict.

In 1998, the BBC programme QED investigated the phenomenon and used a dead pig to try to present a scientific explanation called the ‘wick effect’. The clothes are the wick and the fat surrounding a person is the fuel source which burns slowly for hours, like a candle.

However, forensic scientists still fail to agree whether there is any such thing as the “wick effect”.

SHC has also informed literary and artistic lore and made appearances in stories from major writers, including Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Herman Melville.

The sailor Miguel Saveda in Redburn by Melville suffered death by SHC and a character in Dickens’s Bleak House, meets the same fate. Alcoholic Mr Krook finds his gin warming his stomach more than usual, and suddenly bursts into flames.

“It is the same death eternally — inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself, and that only — spontaneous combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died,” wrote Dickens.

When the story was first published, Dickens was accused of seeking to popularise superstitious folklore but he responded by saying he had researched the subject and knew of about 30 cases.
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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 the country.

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.

– Brian McDonald

Irish Independent

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