Spontaneous combustion a myth, says coroner

Friday 11 November 2011 18.03
Spontaneous combustion a myth, says coroner

A Donegal Coroner has described spontaneous human combustion as "probably an urban myth" at the inquest into the death of a 50-year-old woman in Carndonagh on 31 December, 2010.

Coroner Dr John Madden said when he saw the remains of Elizabeth McLaughlin, of 42 Close Padraig, Carndonagh, spontaneous human combustion did come to mind.

A garda described finding the charred remains on the floor of the sitting room with the damage just confined to the remains and the immediate vicinity.

The inquest heard from Harry Masterson, partner of Ms McLaughlin for the previous 12 years.

He had stayed with her over Christmas and then returned to his home in Moville on 30 December to collect medication.

Normally Ms McLaughlin would have rung him around 7am every day, but that had not happened and he became concerned and took the bus to Carndonagh on 31 December at 9.30am.

Dolores Loftus, a niece of Ms McLaughlin, had tried to get into the house when she heard the smoke alarm going off at 10.20am but she had been unable to get in.

Mr Masterson eventually gained access to the house with the help of a nephew who went in through an upstairs window.

Kevin Loftus described to the inquest how he smelled smoke and saw a dead cat lying on the landing.

"I kept looking for my aunt and I discovered two more dead cats lying on the floor,” said Mr Loftus.

“I saw what I thought was a burnt Christmas tree lying on the sitting room floor and I kept searching for her and felt relieved she was not in the house. I let the others in the door.

“Dolores said in the sitting room 'there is her shoe'. It was then I realised it was a leg - I could not believe what I was seeing and I put everyone out. It took me a couple of minutes to get my head straight and then I rang 999.”

The Garda and fire service attended and the scene was preserved and a video taken of the remains in situ before they were removed for post mortem.

Dental records and DNA from Ms McLaughlin’s hairbrush were required to formally identify the deceased, Sgt John McLaughlin told the inquest.

"Inside the sitting room on the floor were the charred remains of a person. An unusual aspect was that the actual burning and fire damage were confined to the human remains on the floor and the immediate vicinity," Sgt McLaughlin said.

“The room was smoke damaged. I saw an empty vodka bottle close to the remains and saw two dead cats close to the remains."

Deputy State Pathologist Dr Michael Curtis conducted the autopsy on Ms McLaughlin however, Coroner Madden did not read it out, describing it as "quite graphic".

"There was a high level of cyanide in the blood stream and carbon monoxide in the atmosphere, which is not normally there. There was no anti-mortem damage. Death was caused by fire.

“There was talk of spontaneous human combustion at the time. I did a little research and that probably is an urban myth, but when I did see the remains, it did come to mind.

“There was little damage to the surrounding area. I believe the clothes acted like a wick on a candle - there was the complete destruction of the body but the fire did not spread," the Coroner said.

He offered his sympathy to Mr Masterson, who he said had brought happiness to the deceased.

Following the inquest Mr Masterson said he believed Ms McLaughlin had died as a result of spontaneous combustion and cited a recent inquest in Galway which made that finding.

"It seems to me to be spontaneous human combustion, which I know is unusual. It was just terrible. I would not wish it on anyone," Mr Masterson added.