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2007, December 16: Brazilian Spontaneous Combustion

The Legend:

On Sunday, December 16, 2007, a young woman in Brazil died as a result of Spontaneous Human Combustion, a strange situation wherein a human body can be set aflame by an unknown internal chemical or nuclear reaction. Witnesses to the event said that the woman was incinerated in a matter of seconds, and the photos of the event show that her arms were completely destroyed.

SHC Victim?
Brazilian Woman's Corpse [Larger versions available at original source here]

        It was speculated that the young woman may have encountered ball lightning, and had her arms incinerated while trying to fend off the strange phenomena.

The Source and the Story

        The above account, which is now repeated in a number of websites, appears to have been first posted by the website CharonBoat sometime in 2009. Most newer presentations of the account leave out the ball lightning reference, which seems to have been speculation on the part of the CharonBoat author (after all, if there were witnesses wouldn't they have mentioned ball lightning?)... besides, all of the websites displaying this account are only concerned with the sensational and gory nature of the pictures that have accompanied the report. Other than a date -- December 16, 2007 -- and telling us the young woman is Brazilian, no other information about the event is offered by CharonBoat, including any hint as to their source for the pictures and story.

        Before I tell you about the origin of the pictures -- which I have found -- let me quickly point out that classic reports of spontaneous human combustion describe people who have had their torsos destroyed and their limbs left intact, which is why it was inferred these fires were starting inside the victims' bodies. In this particular account we have an intact torso with destroyed limbs, which is a classic sign of an external fire and typical of most normal deaths by fire... so the pictures actually argue against the possibility of anything like spontaneous human combustion (if it exists). So there is no evidence in the photos themselves that would imply a paranormal event, which may be why the CharonBoat author offered up ball lightning as a possible second cause; but in most reports of ball lightning, the electrical phenomena is described as floating past or around people as if repulsed by them.

        Personally, my first impression of what the pictures showed was that the woman was the victim of someone trying to hide her identity by purposefully igniting her head and arms with some sort of fuel; but if true, then why also burn her feet? These were fully destroyed as well. With these sorts of questions in mind, I went searching for CharonBoat's source for the story to find out more... especially if it was actually a witnessed event.

        Turns out this was very much a witnessed event.

A Rainy Night in Brazil

        On July 17, 2007, an airport in Congonhas, Brazil, saw the most fatal air event in the history of the country. As TAM Airlines Flight 3054 was coming in for a landing, a combination of faulty engines and a new, unfinished runway surface caused the aircraft to hydroplane off the end of the runway into a warehouse and Shell Fuel station; all passengers and crew, as well as twelve people on the ground, were killed pretty much instantly in the resulting crash and explosion.

        While the news of this event was reported worldwide, images of the dead were really only shown on local news and personal websites from Brazil where a different idea of what is appropriately newsworthy allowed for the display of graphic images of burned and mutilated bodies. These gory images were not distributed worldwide at the time of the disaster, just pictures of the wreckage for the most part. I've traced two of the images used by CharonBoat of the 'young Brazilian woman' back to Brazilian posts that went up on a website just days after the air disaster, and that also displayed many other pictures of different -- and variously destroyed -- victims of the air crash. The remaining four images of the dead woman have also been associated back to the disaster, though I could not find them as close to the July 17th date as the first two images because many of the pages from the time have since been taken down.

        The details of CharonBoat's account of the woman's death by spontaneous human combustion or ball lightning is simply false, so I'm marking this account as a 'False Lead'... a story that was never true to begin with. There will probably always be an unanswered question as to whether or not the CharonBoat author created the story or if they got the story from somewhere else; in either case, I'll bet the date given of 'December 16, 2007' is not a reflection of the date of the so-called event, but more a copy of the posting date for CharonBoat's original source for the images.

        This account also displays everything I've come to dislike about continuing claims for the existence of spontaneous human combustion. My own research into the topic has shown that while there have been cases of paranormal fires, there has never been a pattern of evidence that can be said to represent a single repeating series of connected paranormal fire deaths... in short, paranormal fires have happened, but spontaneous human combustion as a way of grouping deaths has not. In modern social media the term 'spontaneous human combustion' has simply become a way to say "look at the burnt dead person" and make it news and entertainment for a moment; but the victims of fire caused deaths labeled this way are someone's child, sibling, friend, or parent... and they all deserve better then to have their tragic deaths turned into momentary, and fake, paranormal thrills.