Friday, April 11, 2008

IS IT REAL? Spontaneous Human Combustion

National Geographic Channel - Original Air Date: 2005-6

Everyone has heard stories of people who suddenly, and for no apparent reason, catch fire and burn to ashes, leaving only a few grisly remains behind.  But, can people really catch fire just because of something within their bodies?  This show takes a hard look at the phenomenon, and -- as usual -- reaches a skeptical conclusion.  Two investigators travel to Belgium to investigate a woman who may be the only known survivor of spontaneously catching fire.  What kind of fuel would cause that to happen?  Alcohol?  Chemical contamination?  Nuclear reaction of some kind?  The survivor shows signs of being burned on the surface, not from within.  Somehow the case seems connected to a shell the woman picked up on the beach.  Eventually, the investigators -- both believer and skeptic -- conclude that a chemical reaction, perhaps to sodium in the shell, caused spontaneous combustion, but not spontaneous human combustion.

One of the other suspects is ball lightning, or a similar plasma phenomenon.  The ball could knock someone out and start the fire, the unconscious person would then burn to death.  Ball lightning is very rare though. (They have a picture of a lab-created one.)  A simpler explanation is the "wick effect," which means that person acts like a human candle once a fire starts: fire melts fat and flesh which feeds the fire which melts more fat, etc.  Where did the bones go?  Perhaps they were damaged enough by osteoporosis to be destroyed by the heat.  In SHC cases, the person's extremities, hands, feet, legs, sometimes survive.  These things are seldom covered by clothes; no clothes, no wick to catch fire, so the theory goes.  A test of the wick effect shows how easily a fire can run out of control.  Could the effect need a closed room or other rare conditions to work, otherwise, you get a completely burned house?  Many of the victims share common traits: elderly, overweight, infirm, smokers, and alone.  It seems possible that by smoking before they fell asleep, many of the victims may have accidentally caused their own demise.

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