2017, September 17: John Nolan's Fiery Death

John Nolan
John Nolan, date unknown. [Larger version here]

On December 15, 2017, the Daily Mail website featured an astounding story: John Nolan, a 70-year-old Irish man living in London, England, had been seen to burst into flames and die while walking on the street! A clear case of that mysterious phenomena called 'Spontaneous Human Combustion,' investigators were left at a loss for answers as to what happened.

        And now, the actual story. I'll come back to the Daily Mail's claims later.

        It was Sunday, September 17, 2017, and 70-year-old John Nolan and his brother Jimmy were planning on watching the All-Ireland Final match that afternoon. Jimmy left the flat in Tottenham to go on an errand around 11AM while John was still having breakfast, and returned a little over two hours later... to find the area swarming with police cordons and emergency services. John had been airlifted to Broomsfield hospital, with a specialist burns unit, in Chelmsford, Essex. John had third degree burns covering 65 percent of his body. His 72-year-old sister Mary stated that John was "completely unrecognisable" due to the horrific burns. He was heavily sedated, and on life support in the intensive care unit. On Monday, September 18, after consulting with a doctor, it was decided to take John off the life support and allow him a natural death.

        His family wanted answers. There were precious few to be found.

        John had been a well-known and well-liked character in the area. His sister described him as "feeble and poorly," and noted that he walked everyday for exercise despite the fact that a stroke had previously reduced him to walking with a limp, and that was painful to do. Because John had been in ill health over the past few years, his brother Jimmy was staying with him to care for him. John had apparently gone for a walk after his breakfast on the 17th, for he was discovered on fire around 1PM near Williams House in Orchard Place, a very short distance from his flat.

Orchard Place
Orchard Place. [Larger version here]

        He had his cane with him, and his house-key on a chain around his neck. Police and emergency services extinguished the fire and got him to the hospital... but none of the witnesses had been present when the fire started, so no one knew what had happened.

        A representative for the police stated that Nolan's death was being treated as unexplained for the time, and inquiries were to be ongoing. His family wanted mainly to know if it had been an attack or an accident; it was clear that if John had somehow caught his own clothes on fire, he would likely not have been able to respond fast enough to the threat. This was admitted as a possibility by his nephew Kevin Byrne: “Maybe he had a new lighter or he was sheltering from the wind and it caught his clothes or hair and he might have been slow to react.

        By September 21, it was reported that officers reviewing CCTV footage and calling to nearby homes and seeking witnesses; there was also some hope that the postmortem might shed some light upon what caused the fire.

The December Appeal

        Months after the strange incident, police still had no answers. The CCTV footage had nothing that was helpful, and all witnesses so far interviewed had either seen John Nolan before he caught fire, or after he was already ablaze... they had not yet found anyone who had been in the area when the fire had actually started. Given the circumstances, the police decided to make a public appeal to try to find more information or as yet unidentified witnesses to the event.

        The appeal first went out on December 15, 2017, at 10:39AM in Ham & High, a news website that covered the area local to Orchard Place... it was the same website to first break the story of Nolan's fire back in September. The postmortem examination had only concluded that John had died of severe burns; no other useful information had been gained from it. The London Fire Brigade had determined that there was no evidence an accelerant had been used to start the fire. An inquest into Nolan's death was scheduled to open at Barnet Coroner’s Court on March 13, 2018.

        PC Damien Ait-Amer was quoted as saying: “We have spoken with a number of witnesses who saw Mr Nolan ablaze, but we have yet to establish how the fire started. Mr Nolan was a well-liked member of the community and none of our enquiries so far have indicated that he had been involved in a dispute of any sort. Nor does any account given by witnesses suggest that he had been in contact with another person at the time of the fire.

        It was further stated that Haringey CID detectives were continuing to establish the circumstances around the fire and, though no arrests had been made, John Nolan's death was currently being treated as unexplained... which largely meant they were still undecided if it was an accident or an attack, and were leaving their options open. The article than asked that "anyone who witnessed the incident but has yet to speak with police is urged to call PC Damien Ait-Amer via 101."

        For reasons unknown -- which generally means luck -- this appeal was noted and picked up by more news services than the original investigation report in September had been. But something happened to it on the way.

Gone Wrong... and Viral

       At least two other website released essentially the same article within a half-hour of the Ham & High release... but each had boldly suggestive titles intended to attract attention. The Independent website titled their article "Man dies after bursting into flames in unexplained circumstances in London street," and the Metro website used the title "Man burst into flames and died while walking down the street in London."

        Of course, with no known witnesses to the event -- the whole reason the appeal was being released -- it was impossible to say if Nolan had 'burst' into flames or just caught fire and been slowly overwhelmed. The US edition of Newsweek Online called their version of the appeal story "A man burst into flames on a London street and police still don't know why," and led the article with the confusing statement "London police are appealing for witnesses to a man who died after bursting into flames in front of onlookers on a street in North London"... if you had onlookers, why are you looking for witnesses?

        So the situation was already getting bad due to sites that wanted spectacular titles and sites that were confusing those titles for facts. But not to be outdone, the Daily Mail decided to show everyone how suggestive journalism is meant to be handled... and they went ahead and created new details to basically change the story being reported.

        The Daily Mail released their highly edited version of the appeal at 5:25PM, about seven hours after the initial release of the story. The apparent reason for the delay is that the Daily Mail reporters dug up all previous reported information on Nolan's death to incorporate into their new article, as well as adding an extended section about the history and horrors of 'Spontaneous Human Combustion' (which included the usual sales driving pictures of half destroyed human remains).

        They went with the astounding title: "Mystery as OAP, 70, spontaneously combusts while walking on a London street and dies from his injuries as investigators say they can find NO reason why he caught fire"... and, after a title like that, who really needs to read the article, right? This title was the followed up by three bulleted highlights to further wet an audience's appetite; but only one of those is important to note:

"Passers-by watched in horror as the man, 70, caught fire in Tottenham, London"

This statement, which is utterly incorrect, is repeated in the article: "Investigators have been left mystified by the case of a 70-year-old pensioner who burst into flames and died in front of horrified passers-by on a quiet London street."

        It's misbehavior like this that caused Wikipedia to ban the Daily Mail as a source for its articles from February 2017 on... and that's a pretty big indicator that you can't trust the Daily Mail.

Anomaly or Mystery?

        While it would be amazing to determine that John Nolan died of 'Spontaneous Human Combustion,' -- which I'm calling SHC from here on out -- there's at least one very compelling proof he did not.

        Nolan lived long enough to reach a hospital.

        SHC is the proposed condition of having a human body burst into flames from the inside-out... which means internal organs would be destroyed before external skin burned. The fact Nolan was alive to be treated at all is proof the fire did not come from inside his body.

        The most likely cause of the burns that killed Nolan remains his clothes catching fire, which is exactly what his family and authorities felt happened.

        The whole mystery -- and all the authorities are trying to determine -- is how his clothes caught fire. Whether it was an accident as suggested by Nolan's nephew, or a malicious act as feared by his siblings, in both cases any fire on Nolan's clothing would have soon gotten beyond his ability to either control or escape, for he wasn't very mobile or healthy to begin with.

        The whole of the mystery is the simple lack of enough information to determine which of these two things happened... and, in the case of a malicious act, to determine who was responsible. Let's hope the police, and Nolan's family, get a break in the case.