When she reached the bottom of the first flight of stairs, Jacqueline called out, “my back’s hot. Am I on fire?”
WIDNES, CHESHIRE - On January 28, 1984, 17 year old Halton Technical College cookery student Jacqueline Fitzsimons was bored stiff. She and her two friends, Wendy and Paula had finished their in class cookery test and asked the lecturer if they could leave the class for early break. The girls were denied, another fifteen minutes passed inside the classroom with the girls leaning against worktops and cookers, which should have been off for an hour by that point, but were left on because the room had no heating aside from the ovens. The class was dismissed at 10:55 a.m. The three girls linked arms and strolled down the hallway in high spirits toward the staircase. When she reached the bottom of the first flight of stairs, Jacqueline called out, “my back’s hot. Am I on fire?” Within moments, her back was covered in flames. Two witnesses claimed they saw a strange glow appear over Jacqueline’s right shoulder and drop onto her back. None of the girls were smoking at the time.
The girls as well as staff and other students beat the fire down from her back. She was taken to hospital where it was discovered that her apron had partially melted into the skin of her back and she had burns over 13-18% of her body (reports vary). She remained conscious and upbeat, if a little worse for wear after her ordeal. She claimed that she wasn’t in pain except for one of her fingers, but she died 15 days later due to an infection in her lungs caused by smoke and fire inhalation.
At an inquest, cookery lecturer Robert Carson claimed that the burners on the classroom stoves had been turned off an hour before class was dismissed and that Jacqueline had not leaned against them anyway. Even if a burner had caused Jacqueline’s apron to catch fire, multiple witnesses saw the girls standing by the door waiting to be let out a full 5 minutes before the end of the session.
When interviewed by police in hospital Jacqueline said, “It must have been the cooker. I must have stood too near the cooker”. It was during this interview that she admitted the burners had been left on for heat.
Much of the investigation had to do with studying how long an apron could smoulder before fully igniting or revealing itself through smell. The answer came to 30 seconds. The inquest judge recommended jurors to ignore media reports of spontaneous human combustion and after 10 minutes deliberation found the cause of the fire to be the classroom burners. Nearly everybody who reviews this case and takes the time to comment on it discounts the SHC theory as the fire seemed to originate on the girl’s clothing and not on her body, but the cause of the fire remains mysterious and the government inquest indicated there was a rush to reach a convenient verdict.