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2010, December 22: Michael Faherty’s Fiery Death

Faherty's House
Michael Faherty's Home
[Picture sources here]

On December 22, 2010, in Ballybane, Galway, Ireland, the remains of 76-year-old Michael Faherty (also known as Micheal O Fatharta) were discovered when Faherty's neighbor, Tom Mannion, was awoken by his fire alarm at three in the morning and saw heavy smoke coming from Faherty's house. When Faherty didn't respond to Mannion banging on his door, Mannion called the fire department. After the fire had been put out, the scene was inspected by Garda Gerard O'Callaghan ['Garda' = guardian/police], who stated that Faherty had been lying on his back in a small sitting room, with his head close to an open fireplace. His body was largely destroyed by a fire.

        The fire itself had centered entirely on Faherty's body, with just the floor beneath the body and the ceiling above showing burn damage; in the rest of the house there was only smoke damage. A box of matches on the mantelpiece near the body were undamaged, as were a cell phone and a razor in the same small room. Faherty had last been seen alive "two to three days" before his remains were found.

        Police determined that no one had entered or left the house, presumably since Faherty was last seen alive, and stated they saw no evidence to suggest the death was by means of murder. Though a fire had been burning in the fireplace near the head of the remains, for unknown reasons it was stated that the fire that burned the body could not have come from the fireplace... and, given that, the authorities were unable to identify the actual source of the fire that destroyed Faherty. Samples of the 'fire debris' were tested for the presence of accelerants -- chemicals to cause and assist burning -- and there were none.

        Pathologist Grace Gallagy noted that the corpse had lost its stomach, intestines, liver, pancreas, kidneys, heart, and even some bones to the effects of the fire; it was claimed in newspapers that a temperature of between 700~1000°C was needed to destroy bones. While most reports in newspapers claimed the body was 'totally burnt' or 'completely cremated', Gallagy was able to do some tests on one of Faherty's lungs and on his trachea which means that the upper torso and head must have been roughly intact rather than reduced to ash. The largely incinerated state of the body prevented toxicology examinations from being carried out, but the study of one of Faherty's lungs indicated that it did not show typical signs seen when a victim dies from a heart attack; it was also determined Faherty had suffered from Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. Significantly, there was no soot in the lung or in the trachea so Faherty had not inhaled smoke; this likely means that he was already dead before the fire started. Due to the extent of the fire damage on the corpse, an exact cause of death could not be determined.

        Photos of the body and sitting room were sent to the West Galway coroner Dr. Ciaran McLoughlin to examine. McLoughlin claimed that he had consulted several texts and carried out much research in an attempt to find an explanation -- including a well known book on forensic pathology written by Professor Bernard Knight -- and in September 2011 made the following statement to the press services:

"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."

...which is where I started to have problems with this much publicized case.

Extraordinary Claims

        The death of Michael Faherty has become a bit infamous since Dr. Ciaran McLoughlin's statement in 2011; as an example of a trained professional concluding that a supposedly supernatural occurrence is real, it's a thorn in the side of spontaneous combustion doubters and a boon to spontaneous combustion believers. But there are problems with McLoughlin's conclusion: big problems.

        The details above were compiled from multiple newspaper sources because no single paper carried all the details. In the story being told and re-told -- especially after it reached American based news services -- the way details were included or not included implied a great deal that just wasn't true. The biggest such problem was a general implication that Faherty's death was by a mysterious, and possibly supernatural, fire.

        A closer reading of the more complete details makes clear that the first medical examiner, Grace Gallagy, who actually handled the remains, was very sure that Faherty was dead before his body burned; but because the body and all evidence that it would have contained was largely destroyed, she was unable to specify the manner in which he died previous to the damage. Gallagy checked for what she could with what was left (which was evidence for a heart attack), but her inability to check for other means of death does not exclude them as possibilities... after all Faherty was 76 years old.

        My main problem with this incident is this: given the condition of Faherty's body as described in the compiled report above, the presence nearby of a fireplace with a fire, and the evidence that Faherty was dead and lying in front of the fireplace for upwards of 'two to three days', all evidence points to the likelyhood of his body being destroyed by either a spark from the fire or the remains of Faherty's means of lighting the fire, either of which causing his clothes to start burning, and then a continuous, slow burn destroying his body. In such a smoldering burn, where clothes act as a candlewick using the body's fats as fuel, the localized heat and fluctuating temperatures have been shown to be quite effective at breaking down everything, including bones... a situation that forensic specialists have dubbed the 'wick effect'. So why would a professional coroner decide that the more likely cause was spontaneous human combustion?

        This is especially puzzling because of McLoughlin's claim to have researched the topic of SHC in professional forensic sources, the only one of which that McLoughlin named was Knight's Forensic Pathology, a professional reference work on the study of dead bodies to determine causes that is updated on a yearly basis. Bernard Knight is both a pathologist and a well-known author of crime fiction, who has a very distinct take on spontaneous human combustion, one that is well represented in his forensic pathology book. I quote from the 2004 edition of his book:

"It seems extraordinary that virtually a whole adult body can be consumed, including the skeleton, with minimal surrounding fire damage, but many such cases are on record and have helped to substantiate the myth of 'spontaneous human combustion.'

"Experiments carried out many years ago by Professor David Gee (personal communication) indicated that body fat can burn slowly; using the clothing as a 'wick,' similar to a candle flame.

"Most cases have in common the fact that there was a source of ignition in an open fire and chimney which can provide a constant updraught..."

"...

"As indicated above, the myth of 'spontaneous combustion' is one which refuses to go away, as endless unsubstantiated reports, and newspaper, magazine and television features have continued to fascinate a credulous public ever since Charles Dickens included a description of a case in his novel Bleak House."

As you can see, there is no way that Knight's opinion can be accidentally interpreted to mean spontaneous human combustion exists; and this is pretty much standard for other forensic reference works, attributing fire deaths described as Faherty's above to Professor Gee's wick effect. This then is exactly why I find it perplexing that McLoughlin came to the opposite conclusion, as a professional coroner referencing professional references.

        Therefore to reach a conclusion that spontaneous human combustion is in fact the cause of Faherty's destruction, McLoughlin must provide extraordinary evidence... which the newspaper articles on Faherty's death fail to provide. First, no reason is actually given for why the fire in the fireplace is considered to have not caused the fire that destroyed Faherty's body, which was close by. Was it eliminated as a cause only because the people examining the death scene didn't believe it was possible for it to start the fire?

        Secondly, McLoughlin does not state any specific features of the case that make it stand out from previously examined cases from the forensic references. For example, in Bernard Knight's book he describes two death scenes he examined himself that had great similarity to Faherty's death as described by the newspapers; so there is no obvious reason why McLoughlin would conclude he was looking at something different... unless there are features to the death scene and evidence that was not released to the newspapers that make the case distinctly different.

        Until such a time as evidence to this nature becomes public, however, I'm calling the death of Michael Faherty likely a classic case of the wick effect, and McLoughlin's conclusion of 'spontaneous human combustion' as Factually Challenged.