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06 August, 2008

Spontaneous human combustion in Wales

On January 6th, 1980, police officers and firemen were called to the home of an elderly man at Blackwood, south-east Wales. A fire had occurred in the living room, resulting in the death of the householder. John Heymer, a scene-of-crime officer with Gwent Police, attended.

Heymer stated that the victim's arms and torso were reduced to ash, and his skull blackened. The carpet underneath was charred, but only a few centimeters beyond the ashes. A fabric sofa less than a metre away was unscathed. It was clear that an intense blaze had consumed the victim's body, whilst somehow leaving his surroundings virtually unharmed.

Mr. Heymer said the fire occurred on an exceedingly cold day. Despite there being no central heating in the house, the house was unexpectedly warm. When he entered the living room, he felt as if he had “stepped into a cooling oven”. A plastic light shade had melted away. Heymer described every surface in the room as "coated with a greasy black soot". The fireplace only contained old, long-dead coal ashes. No hot coals or sparks had escaped. The victim's torso, and the surfaces immediately in contact with him, were the only burnt objects in the room. Heymer had never seen anything like it.

Bizarrely, a similar incident occurred nearby, a month later, involving an elderly woman. Both elderly victims had effectively draught-proofed the rooms in which they died. Investigators believed lack of oxygen in the rooms had prevented the fires from spreading further than the victims' bodies. Both torsos, from their mid-thighs up to their necks were reduced to ash, bones included, each skull blackened, whilst their lower legs and feet were not at all burnt. Also, both victims had been alive when combustion began.

Does spontaneous human combustion have a scientific, or a paranormal explanation? Proponents of the ‘candle theory’ believe that a human body, especially an overweight one, may burn on similar principles to that of a candle. Body fat, not wax, fuels the combustion, with clothing serving as a wick. Interestingly, many spontaneous combustion victims have been considered obese.

Can the combination of excess body fat and high temperatures really cause a human body to spontaneously combust? Or are darker forces at work? The scientific explanation certainly seems the more logical. However, it is hardly surprising that some people blame malevolent supernatural forces, when confronted by such a terrifying and bizarre phenomenon.

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