Spontaneous Combustion Suspected in Oklahoma Death

Alcohol and smoking are implicated in many suspected cases of spontaneous combustion. (Image credit: Nejron Photo | Shutterstock)

Did an Oklahoma man die of spontaneous combustion?

Sheriff Ron Lockhart of Sequoyah County hasn't yet determined that the death of 65-year-old Danny Vanzandt was definitely a case of spontaneous combustion — but he hasn't ruled it out, either.

"It's very unusual, and it's bizarre, and I can't explain it," Lockhart told KFSM. "I'm not saying this happened. I'm just saying that we haven't ruled it out."

Vanzandt's brother discovered the victim in the kitchen and immediately called 911, according to KFSM. Fire crews found a badly burned body, but no fire damage to nearby furniture or other items. There were no signs of a break-in, a struggle or any other cause of death.

Spontaneous combustion has long been the stuff of legend, but some researchers believe it's possible, though rare. In 2011, a coroner in Ireland ruled that the death of 76-year-old Michael Faherty was the result of spontaneous human combustion, or SHC. [The 9 Most Bizarre Medical Conditions]

For any item to combust, it needs at least two things: a source of ignition and fuel for a fire. In many alleged cases of SHC, the victims were smokers or were near open flames like candles or a burning fireplace.

And the fuel for SHC might come from the victims themselves. Fat will burn, and fatty tissue is often located directly beneath the skin. Clothing or hair can act as candle wicks, according to researcher Joe Nickell, who investigated several such cases in his book, "Real-Life X-Files" (University Press of Kentucky, 2001).

Alcohol abuse is an additional factor in many cases of spontaneous combustion, either because it causes the victims to "pass out" or sleep soundly, or because alcohol itself is flammable. According to KFSM, Vanzandt was a heavy drinker and a heavy smoker who also had "poor hygiene" and no running water in his house at the time of his death.

Investigators also noted that Vanzandt had burn marks in his trachea, indicating he may have inhaled a considerable amount of smoke and carbon monoxide, which can cause a person to lose consciousness and, in high concentrations, can be deadly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though the term "spontaneous combustion" sounds like a sudden burst of flames, Lockhart told KFSM the body appeared to have burned for up to 10 hours. Vanzandt's remains have been sent to the Oklahoma medical examiner's office in Tulsa, which will determine the cause of death.

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Marc Lallanilla
Live Science Contributor
Marc Lallanilla has been a science writer and health editor at About.com and a producer with ABCNews.com. His freelance writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and TheWeek.com. Marc has a Master's degree in environmental planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin.