Oklahoma Man Didn’t Die of SHC

September 17, 2013

You heard it here early on: The elderly Oklahoman who supposedly died of “Spontaneous Human Combustion” (SHC) on February 18, 2013, did not perish from that nonexistent phenomenon. Now the medical examiner in the case fully agrees, contradicting the earlier speculations of the local sheriff.

My blog of February 21 mentioned that the victim, a man of 65, was a smoker and drinker and that that could be a deadly combination. He was alone with no one to intervene and save him. Once he collapsed and caught on fire, or caught on fire and then collapsed, his clothing would act as a wick, absorbing the burning body’s melting fat to fuel still more burning—a cyclical process known in the forensic literature as “the wick effect.”

(Originally with forensic analyst John F. Fischer, I have investigated numerous cases of alleged SHC from the 18th to the 21st century, presenting the results in science magazines and books, at forensic conferences, on television documentaries, and elsewhere. Our work is cited in the textbook Kirk’s Fire Investigation, 4th ed., by noted fire and arson expert John DeHaan, 1997, and in 2010 I gave a detailed presentation on SHC as a special instructor at the New York state Academy of Fire Science.)

On Tuesday, September 10, the medical examiner’s office in Tulsa issued its report. Autopsy showed that the victim, Danny Vanzandt, suffered from coronary artery disease. Also, a lack of soot within his airway, coupled with a negative carboxyhemoglobin level in his blood sample, suggests death occurred prior to burning. The M.E. concluded Vanzandt probably died from a heart attack, whereupon his clothing caught on fire from a cigarette.

The report went on to suggest that the clothing burns “long enough to split the skin and release adipose [fatty] tissue onto the clothing and floor and this adipose tissue then becomes the primary fuel source for the fire.” (See articles online at https://5newsonline.com/.) Vanzandt’s remains weighed just 40 pounds.

Once again we have a case of a burning death in which an alone, elderly person perished with severe destruction to the body, yet with minimal damage to surroundings. Although such deaths must be investigated on a case-by-case basis, an external ignition source, often aided by the “wick effect,” is invariably the cause. No case has ever warranted a conclusion of death by spontaneous human combustion, and that includes the Oklahoma tragedy as well.