Sunday, February 24, 2013

Spontaneous human combustion in Oklahoma

Did you see this story?
The sheriff of Sequoyah County in Oklahoma believes that a 65-year-old man recently died by spontaneously bursting into flames.

“If you read about spontaneous human combustion that’s what we have here,” Sheriff Ron Lockhart told KFSM. ...

“The body was burned and it was incinerated,” Lockhart explained. “You hardly ever have a burned body, especially when there’s no damage to the house. Where the fire occurred, there was no damage to the furniture or anything around the fire. So, it was a low-heat fire.”

“We started researching and talking to other fire investigators and we started looking at this spontaneous human combustion, and anything that’s in that is basically what we have,” he added. “It’s an unusual and bizarre case, but we’re not ruling out spontaneous human combustion.”

Lockhart said that Vanzandt drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes, but it was not possible for those factors to cause the type of fire that incinerated the body.

I used to be crazy about this kind of thing when I was a kid. But then I grew up. Then I learned more about these "unexplained phenomena."

And my god, it's the 21st Century! How can a sheriff, even in Oklahoma, be this ignorant? He even talks about "researching and talking to other fire investigators." Were all of them this clueless?

True, in the original article, he doesn't seem to be completely irrational (although he is rather grammar-impaired):
“We wasn’t saying the guy just busted into flames, you know there’s gotta have an ignition source and that’s what we’re looking at is an ignition source such as lighting a cigarette and catches himself on fire, sucks the flames down his throat, and falls down,” Lockhart said.

But he just shrugs off the fact that this guy was "an alcoholic and an avid smoker," and certainly of an age where a heart attack might seem plausible.

Anyway, here's Joe Nickell:
SHC [spontaneous human combustion] is a non-explanation for bizarre burning deaths, no better than positing the attack of a fiery demon, because there is not only no scientifically authenticated case of SHC but no credible mechanism by which it could happen. On the other hand, careful investigation usually shows what much more likely happened in a given instance.

In the Oklahoma case, the 65-year-old victim was “incinerated” but there “was no damage to the furniture or anything around the fire,” Sheriff Ron Lockhart told KSFM radio (broadcast Feb. 18). He concluded, “So it was a low-heat fire.” Lockhart admitted that the victim, Danny Vanzandt, was a cigarette smoker and drinker of alcohol, but he insisted that those factors could not have caused such incineration.

Obviously the sheriff is unaware that—given only the facts he mentioned—an obvious hypothesis naturally presents itself: The possibly intoxicated victim, who was alone so there was no one to intervene and rescue him, accidentally set himself on fire and collapsed, whereupon his clothing acted as a wick, absorbing the burning body’s melting fat to fuel still more burning—a cyclical process known to forensic experts as “the wick effect.” Thus there is a relatively low-temperature fire which does little damage to surroundings while efficiently consuming much of the body over an extended period.

Is this what happened? I don't know. But it's certainly possible, and it doesn't involve postulating some bizarre event that would rewrite the laws of physics.

If the guy was drunk, he could have passed out with a lit cigarette. Or he could have had a heart attack while smoking. He could have fallen asleep and, when he woke up with his clothes on fire, lungs full of smoke, just panicked.

Nickell goes on to say:
Forensic analyst John Fischer and I investigated numerous historical “SHC” cases from the eighteenth century onward and published our results in the journal of the International Association of Arson Investigators in 1984. I have done much additional work since then and have presented on the subject at forensic conferences. In 2010 I gave a three-hour illustrated lecture on alleged SHC as a special instructor at the New York state Academy of Fire Science.

When I was a kid, I used to think this stuff was neat. But I think it's a lot neater when people use their brains to look for plausible answers, rather than just pushing the sensational. Of course, this would not have gotten any media attention at all without that "spontaneous human combustion" claim, would it?

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