back to article Oklahoma cops rake ashes of 'spontaneous combustion' victim

Investigators in Oklahoma are attempting to determine just how a 65-year-old man was largely incinerated while his timber-framed house suffered minimal damage, in what the the local sheriff described as a possible case of spontaneous human combustion. Danny VanZandt was found burning on the kitchen floor in his home between …


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  1. Smallbrainfield
    Paris Hilton

    I thought this kind of thing had been explained as a 'wick effect'?

    i.e. all the fat in a persons body acting like tallow while clothing acts as a wick?

    I remember reading 'The Unexplained' when I was a kid and being completely grossed out by the picture of an SHC victim. Just some legs sticking out of a charred pile.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: I thought this kind of thing had been explained as a 'wick effect'?

      Yep, the 'inside out candle' theory. Different materials react differently to temperatures and time- in a crematorium, (high temperature, short duration) steel balls are used to crush the bones, whereas lower temperatures sustained for a longer period can reduce bones to ash.

    2. thesykes
      Thumb Up

      Re: I thought this kind of thing had been explained as a 'wick effect'?

      Still got my full set of The Unexplained, perfect condition in binders... and can remember the walking frame and leg sticking out of a burnt floor. May have to dig them for a read...

    3. Swoop

      Re: I thought this kind of thing had been explained as a 'wick effect'?

      Yep, the wick effect is so well documented I'm surprised SHC is still treated as a big mystery.

    4. Qwelak

      Re: I thought this kind of thing had been explained as a 'wick effect'?

      Amazing, it seems that that picture stayed in the minds of everyone who sawit. I can still remember that issue of the Unexplained and the picture itself. Happy memories.

      Beer to quench the internal flames

    5. Schultz

      wick effect'?

      So remember to wash your clothes every now and then. Might save your life and will definitely save your neighbours live!

    6. Mike Richards Silver badge

      Re: I thought this kind of thing had been explained as a 'wick effect'?

      Wow! That brings back memories of the early 1980s. The Unexplained I should - erm - explain - not having spontananeously combusted myself.

      To bring back another raft of memories, didn't QED do this experiment with a pig carcass wrapped in muslin? My memory isn't what it used to be and it's so very long since BBC1 actually did science programming.

      1. Yet Another Commentard

        Re: I thought this kind of thing had been explained as a 'wick effect'?

        I don't know if it was QED, but yes there was a programme about it where they used a pig to substitute a human. I think the very same photo the rest of the commentators above recall was shown on-screen. I recall the photo, but never read "Unexplained". It may have featueed in Arthur C Clarke's Mysterious World too...

        Bring back Horizon, QED, and Equinox in all their technical 1970s/80s glory.

        I'm off to start a petition.

    7. Anonymous Coward

      Re: I thought this kind of thing had been explained as a 'wick effect'?

      Oh yes, that thought just came to me when I was reading the article too - I was scared out of my wits for ages afterwards!

      Flames, well you know why....

  2. Anonymous Coward 101

    Like other victims of 'spontaneous human combustion', this was an old person who smoked. I'm willing to bet he had health problems, and quite possibly had a drink problem too. The human wick effect is the best explanation I've seen for this phenomenon. Either that, or God has it in for harmless old folk.

    1. Fred Flintstone Gold badge

      this was an old person who smoked. I'm willing to bet he had health problems, and quite possibly had a drink problem too

      So, your theory is that the alcohol basically caught fire through his smoking? Works for me :p

      That's probably also a good reason not to cremate alcoholics - the risk of combustion..

      1. Richard 12 Silver badge


        That he passed out after drinking and dropped his ciggy.

      2. Anonymous Coward

        Wouldn't that make it easier ? :)

  3. Alan Bourke

    "Dropped a cig" victim

    more like.

  4. Jim T

    SHC = I don't know

    Surely all their saying is "I don't know what caused this". Pretending SHC is something specific is pretty poor for an official. The pile of SHC cases are part of the Unexplained file. Unexplained does not mean ALIENS or anything like that.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: SHC = I don't know

      > Unexplained does not mean ALIENS or anything like that.

      But it could be ENORMOUS HEAT generated by a spontaneously nucleating vacuum.

      Or politicians.

      1. Ted Treen
        Big Brother

        Re: SHC = I don't know

        So how can we ensure around 650 instances of SHC in the Palace of Westminster?

        C'mon, you know it makes sense...

        1. Lord Voldemortgage

          Re: SHC = I don't know

          "So how can we ensure around 650 instances of SHC in the Palace of Westminster?

          C'mon, you know it makes sense..."

          Awful idea. There are some lovely floors in there it would be a real shame to damage.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: SHC = I don't know

          How about 535 cases in the US Congress, both the House of Representatives (435) and the Senate (100)... Then we could start from scratch...

  5. P_0

    From the article

    "You get called to the house where there's a body inside, and you expect the house to be burnt down. This house is intact. There is a stove and ice box within 3 feet from where the body's burning, and the handles are not melted."

    Only VanZandt's head, hands and feet survived the fire. Lockhart said of the remains: "You could pour gasoline on somebody and he wouldn't be as badly incinerated."

    The wick effect creates a slow, smoldering fire. Not only is the above description consistent with the wick effect, it is entirely expected. And the hands, feet and head, the extremities, don't contain enough fat content to maintain the burning.

    In conclusion, why is this even news?

    1. DJ Smiley

      Because its incredibly rare?

      Why it's on the register is a little more questionable... (but I presume its in bootnotes or odds and sods.)

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Hadn't there been one case where one other aspect of SHC was noted, one which wick effect combustion couldn't handle: speed? It'd be interesting to see one where the verified burn time was too short for wick effect combustion.

      2. Anonymous Coward

        Register : Was he holding a laptop or smartphone at the time?

    2. frank ly Silver badge


      Further, the hands, feet and head are generally not closely covered by material that makes a good wick.

      A good question would be: have there been cases of apparent SHC where the victim had well defined, uncovered areas of their body that did not suffer serious burning, or had a different kind of burn pattern to covered areas? e.g. bare forearms or bare lower legs?

      1. Nigel 11

        Re: @P_O

        Combustion of a "body" has been demonstrated, using a pig carcass dressed in clothes in place of a human body. No mystery.

  6. Colin Millar

    By any chance

    Did anyone see a 1964 Chevy Malibu in the vicinity?

    1. jai

      Re: By any chance

      "the life of a repo man is always intense"

    2. Marcp

      Re: By any chance

      Ohhh..... you don't want to look in there - the 2 hemispheres are fundamentally opposed

    3. Smallbrainfield

      Re: By any chance

      Ha ha, best damn car in the yard.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: By any chance

      "It happens sometimes. People just explode. Natural causes. "

  7. Captain Hogwash Silver badge


    ...might have something to do with it.

  8. jai

    Was there a tv nearby?

    There's a well documented cause for SHC:

  9. BrentRBrian

    Is that the quiet buzz ..

    ... of a DRONE that I hear ... with a FRIGGIN LASER ON ITS HEAD ?

  10. David_H

    The death is easy to explain

    What this poor person had done to receive the wrath of the BOFH is harder to find out!

  11. Gerhard den Hollander

    Did he used to be a drummer ?

    Dozens of people spontaneously combust each year, it's not just widely reported

  12. Anonymous Coward

    It's demoic possession....

    And the Hell Fires burned from within.

  13. Ketlan


    It was God wot dun it.

  14. jubtastic1

    The simplest explanations are usually correct.

    Vampire caught out by roller blind malfunction.

  15. Mike Richards Silver badge

    It's Oklahoma so

    It's either God or the Devil - the catch-all explanation for anything in the MidWest.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: It's Oklahoma so


  16. Dave 32

    Burning Bodies

    Not to be overly gross, but didn't the Nazis have quite a bit of experience with burning human bodies? I seem to recall some reports describing how the bodies of fat people should be intermixed with those of skinny people to achieve complete combustion of the corpses. :-(


    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Burning Bodies

      Going that far back, we know the Nazis were rather gross, but looking at it strictly from a scientific perspective, the Nazis knew how to run like a well-greased machine. In this case, they knew enough to keep in mind an ideal ratio of tallow (fat) to other body mass.

  17. An(other) Droid

    Time to...

    ... page Fox Mulder.

    Can believe no one used the alien icon yet. There, corrected that.

  18. southpacificpom
    Paris Hilton

    Paris potential?

    Considering her "hotness" could she easily combust?

    1. LateNightLarry
      Paris Hilton

      Re: Paris potential?

      Wrong kind of "hotness", and not enough body fat for the wick effect...

      I'll take her 'hotness' though...

  19. JaitcH

    More grist for the ...

    Discovery Channel Zombie shows.

    Next they will have it recorded live.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I have a theory

    Its a chance mutation in common gut bacteria, which breaks the NADH channel.

    This results in sugar being metabolised into simpler sugars and hydrogen , which then spontaneously ignites causing a short lived but devastating (to the victim) fire.

    As the heat source is internal the wick effect swiftly takes over, resulting in near complete combustion.

    The same effect has been theorised to be the cause of some lithium ion battery fires, however in this case gas being produced by the bacteria as they break down carbon compounds found in the electrolyte eventually ruptures the internal separators and causes a short circuit if it doesen't ignite by itself first.


    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I have a theory

      Should I leave the whisky for a beer.

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