Death. A word that conjures up an image of finality of this human body. Death comes to us all at some stage, it’s an inevitable, inescapable, unavoidable, part of living. Most of us accept that fact, but we don’t tend to think about it, or about our own eventual deaths, until it is brought to our attention with the death of a loved one, acquaintance, or even celebrity – where it is generally plastered over all the media outlets, so it’s really in your face, so to speak. Then we might think about it for a little while, put it to the back of our minds and go on with our day to day living. Or, we might consider how we, ourselves might leave this physical reality when our time here is over.
Personally, I have no fear of death whatsoever, to me, it’s merely walking through a door into another room and life continues on – albeit in a different form. However, the manner of my death is another thing entirely. Of course, like some of you I would much prefer to go peacefully in my sleep, then in any other way. For some people though, their manner of passing from this realm, is very, very peculiar, unusual and frankly, pretty scary, albeit absolutely unexplained…
Can you imagine someone just sitting, enjoying a cup of tea, or watching TV when suddenly, with no apparent reason, their body is engulfed in flames? Flames that start from no external source, but from within their own bodies? How frightening would that be? This is called Spontaneous Human Combustion and is the subject of our episode today. Fair warning, I will be sharing cases where this has happened and in some cases what was left behind. Also, giving a little back history on this subject. So, some of this episode may be quite gruesome to listen to. If this is going to be upsetting, or distressing to you, then it might pay to give this episode a miss. Having said that, are you willing and ready to walk with me into this part of the shadowlands and see what awaits us there? Then, let’s begin.
Spontaneous Human Combustion
Spontaneous Human Combustion, is a subject that has frankly both fascinated and if I am honest, scared me a wee bit since I first read about it in my early teens. This is an episode that I have been wanting to do for some time. When I first thought about starting the creation of this podcast I made a list of topics I wanted to cover at one time or another. This was number three on my list of about twenty or so subjects I thought about for episodes to use.
What is Spontaneous Human Combustion?
What is Spontaneous Human Combustion? Well, why don’t we start with some definitions of what precisely spontaneous combustion is. The Cambridge English Dictionary gives this definition, spontaneous combustion.,
“self-ignition of combustible material through chemical action (such as oxidation) of its constituents”
So basically Spontaneous Human Combustion then, is when the human body self-ignites. But, can humans spontaneously burst into flames? Can they? In a typical case of Spontaneous Human Combustion, the victim is almost entirely consumed by the fire, generally this is in their own home. Often however parts of the body such as hands and feet remain intact. The room in which the victim dies usually shows few, if any, signs of a fire. Even if they were sitting on a chair, the person may be fully consumed by the fire, but the chair may only show signs of scorching, or only be partly consumed by the fire. How is that even possible? In some cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion occurring, along with the ash remains of the body, there is also an oily residue found at the site, often on the walls or the ceiling. Sometimes also, a sweet, smoky smell is noticed, in the room where the incident occurred
Usually in these cases, there’s no evidence to be found of any sort of accelerant that could have caused the fire, or of any heat source that could have caused the body to burn. So then what could have possibly caused this to happen? How could a human being spontaneously burst into flames and then burn almost completely, or totally, while leaving their surroundings mostly unaffected? How could that happen? And, importantly, is there anyway of preventing this from occurring?
Many people think Spontaneous Human Combustion is a real occurrence, however, most scientists aren’t convinced. Most of them, dismiss the idea that humans can catch fire for no reason. They say that many cases involved victims who were alone and close to a flame, such as a cigarette or candle. Or that often, the victims have been elderly or intoxicated, and thus unable to put out the flames. Certainly, these could be valid observations in some, but not in all cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion. From here on, some of this information might be a bit gruesome for some to hear, so please be aware and continue listening with my caution.
How could this happen?
So how precisely could this happen? How could a human body suddenly burst into flames? There is no doubt that bodies can burn; crematoriums routinely reduce bodies to ashes within a few hours. The mystery of Spontaneous Human Combustion lies in the circumstances under which victims burst into flames. Generally, there is no obvious source of ignition, no open fires nearby that might set the person aflame. Furthermore, the victims are generally killed, and not only partly burned on one arm or a leg. Spontaneous Human Combustion is usually fatal. However, there are the odd exception to this, which I will discuss later. Some claim that burning often seems to begin in the chest or stomach area, leaving the grisly remains of legs and hands intact.
It’s scientifically known, that in order for anything at all to be able to combust, there are three things that are required. One: a source of fuel. Two: an oxidizing agent – which is generally the oxygen in the air. Three: very high heat. Our physical bodies are largely composed of water, in fact sixty to seventy percent water. And as we all know water by itself won’t burn. So how is this scientifically possible? There are many theories or hypotheses as to how this might occur. Some of the possible explanations that have been put forward are:
A high blood alcohol level
Methane in the gut
A new (and currently undiscovered) sort of subatomic particle called a pyroton, although this to me seemed the least plausible.
However, how convincing are any of these? Methane certainly could be a runner. Methane is a flammable gas which is produced by bacterial action in our gut (and in a cow’s guts). One hypothesis, is that the methane in the gut is ignited by the action of enzymes or by a spark from a build up of static electricity. But, no one really knows what causes it to happen. What causes the actual ignition.
In nature, there are many examples of spontaneous combustion such as piles of damp straw or hay, which can suddenly ignite. The bacteria present in the decomposition process can generate enough heat to cause the gases produced during the fermentation of the hay, to cause it to burst into flames. In Hamilton, in the North Island of New Zealand where I used to live, there are peat fields, which can spontaneously burst into flames in the summer season. I have seen that for myself many times over the years. Other things also, such as coal dust, piles of compost and used oily rags.
There is a suggestion by some that the fat in the human body could act as a fuel source. And that the person’s hair or clothing could act the way a wick does in a candle. This is known as the ‘Wick Effect’. A candle is actually long wick embedded in solid fat – be that beeswax, soy wax or other sort of wax, or fat. When you light the wick, the heat of the burning wick melts some of the the fat, which soaks into the wick and starts to burn itself. As further fat melts and soaks into the wick and burns, the candle slowly burns itself completely, from the top downwards.
Now, think of the body as a candle with an external wick. The fat is located just beneath the skin, where it is stored as sub-cutaneous fat. The wick is the person’s clothing. The external initiating source of heat (perhaps a cigarette or spark from some source) splits the skin and melts some of the fat that seeps out and soaks into the clothing and starts to burn. The burning then proceeds just as in a candle. Melted fat continues to soak into the clothing and to burn until the body is completely consumed. Burning from the inside out, leaving the surroundings largely intact.
Actually, in nature there is precedent for this. I’ve seen photos of trees that were hit by a bolt of lightening (the heat source). The tree then burns from the inside out. Only affecting that tree and not the tree surroundings. On the podcast website www.walkingtheshadowlands.com I’ve included a link to a video showing a tree burning from the inside out after being hit by lightening, not affecting another tree in very close proximity.
In August of nineteen-ninety-eight, the BBC news published an article that stated that scientists had found the cause behind Spontaneous Human Combustion. It talked about the wick effect which I have already mentioned. And, they tested this hypothesis using the body of a dead pig. “Using a dead pig wrapped in cloth, they simulated a human body being burned over a long period and the charred effect was the same as in so-called Spontaneous Human Combustion.” They stated that this explains why the majority of the body rich in fat is generally destroyed, whilst some of the areas are left completely untouched, like the hands or lower limbs.
What causes it?
We now have an idea of what Spontaneous Human Combustion is and how it possibly happens, but not necessarily what triggers it, although It is hypothesised that the methane is ignited in the gut by enzyme action or by a spark from a build up of static electricity.
Another hypothesis was put forward by a British biologist and author Brian Ford, who has another theory for the source of the enigmatic blazes. In a condition called ketosis, the human body produces small amounts of the flammable substance acetone. Ford believes that when a person is ill, they may produce enough acetone that a tiny spark — perhaps due to static electricity — could cause the person to catch fire and burn.
Mast cell researcher Lawrence Afrin, M.D., suggests that a rare condition called mast cell activation syndrome , or MCAS, may be the cause of the phenomenon. In MCAS, mast cells spontaneously release over 200 inflammatory molecules known as mediators, including the substance noradrenaline (norepinephrine). Afrin describes a case report of a man with MCAS who grew ill and appeared to “smoke” in the presence of several witnesses. Afrin writes that the release of large amounts of norepinephrine, or perhaps another mast cell-derived substance, could turn on a regulatory protein called UCP-1 in greater-than-normal amounts. UCP-1 causes adipose oxidization to be released as heat. Adipose tissue, or fat tissue, is a known repository of mast cells. Under the right circumstances, a sudden flood of norepinephrine released from adipose mast cells could activate the UCP-1 “switch” and cause heat generation in excess of 90 degrees Celsius. Once the adipose tissue were ignited, it would in theory burn itself out, inclusive of bone marrow.
British chemist Dr. John Emsley suggests that cases of spontaneous human combustion could be the result of an over production of a pyrophoric liquid, diphosphane, in the gut. He postulates that the self-combustion of diphosphane would also result in the ignition of the hydrogen and methane gasses in the gut, which would explain witnessed cases where blue flames were seen to originate from the abdomen. Hydrogen burns with a pale blue flame.
There’s also a rare medical condition called Stevens-Johnson syndrome that, in extreme cases, may be mistaken for a case of an aborted spontaneous combustion. The skin disease, which can be triggered by a toxic reaction to medications, including antibiotics and prescription painkillers, causes the appearance of severe burns and blisters, and can be fatal. Then there are other theories put forward, such as ball lightning hitting the victims, poltergeist activity, or extreme stress.
Now, let’s look at some of the actual over two hundred reported and recorded cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion.
Recorded history of Spontaneous Human Combustion
In 1641 a Danish doctor by the name of Thomas Bartholin, wrote in his book, and I apologize I know I am absolutely butchering this Latin pronunciation, Historiarum Anatomicarum Rariorum. This was a book about strange and rare medical phenomena, about the death of an Italian knight called Polonus Vorstius. Apparently this knight had been enjoying some wine at home in Milan, with his parents. When he burped fire, and was consumed by the flames and died. He stated that this information was obtained from one of the Vorstius’s family’s direct descendants.
Onto 1763 when a French man by the name of Jonas Dupont’s book entitled De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis, wrote about the death on February the 20th in 1725, of an innkeeper by the name of Madam Nicole Millet. This lady by all accounts was a heavy drinker, and all that remained of her was her skull, a few bones from her back. And, her lower legs. A straw bed near her corpse remained untouched. Her husband was tried and for her murder but was eventually acquitted due to the testimony of a surgeon by the name of Dr Claude-Nicolas Le Cat, who was staying at the inn and had been woken by the smell of smoke, before Nicole’s body was discovered. He convinced the court that her death was an act of God. Which was pretty fortunate for her husband.
In 1731 an Italian Countess, one Cornelia di Bandi died in a similar way. She was put to bed by her maid after she had just completed one of her favourite wine and camphor baths. All that was found of her in the morning was a pair of unburned legs and a skull sitting on the top of a pile of ashes. The room was covered in soot, but nothing else to suggest that there had been a fire, apart from what was left of her body and an empty oil lantern. It appeared that her body was burned so quickly, that her torso disintegrated as she stood and her skull simply dropped onto the ashes below.
In 1744 there was yet another similar story that happened to the body of a gin-soaked, pipe-smoking woman by the name of Grace Pett. She was likened to “a log of wood consumed by a fire.”
So here we can see a pattern beginning to emerge. Alcohol was always present, and the victim’s surroundings were left untouched by the fire. So a theory was given, which has persisted, at least in part, ‘til this day that the combination of human gases and alcohol had caused these victims to spontaneously combust.
Actually, this phenomenon was so well known that it was written about quite often in literature over the years. Charles Dickens killed off an alcoholic shop keeper by the name of Krook, by Spontaneous Human Combustion in his 1853 novel “Bleak House.” Charles described the haunting scene like this:
“Here is a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here is — is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? Oh, horror, he IS here!”
The subject was featured in three different books written by Nikoloi Gogol and this phenomenon has also appeared in movies and on TV shows like “The X-Files.”
Then onto the 20th century when we began to have photographic evidence of victims of Spontaneous Human Combustion. Many gruesome black and white shots showing remaining ashes and limbs actually made the headlines, with a few famous cases. For those interested, I have added some of these photos to this episodes page on the podcast website; www.walkingtheshadowlands.com They are hard to look at, so please be aware of this if you chose to check them out.
In 1938, in Chelmsford, England in a ballroom. A woman by the name of Maybelle Andrews was standing at the top of the ballroom stairs, when in front of her horrified fiancé and a room full of witnesses a flame erupted from her, and then completely engulfed her, with no apparent source of fire in the room.
Curious Case of Mary Reeser
On the 2nd of July 1951 in Saint Petersburg, Florida, Mary Hardy Reeser was visited by her son, Dr. Richard Reeser, in the evening in her apartment. Mary told her son that she had taken 2 seconal tablets, a mild sedative commonly used to calm patients before surgery and was possibly planning to take 2 more before bed. Later that night, Mary fell asleep in her chair. The next morning, Mary’s landlady reported smelling smoke at around 5 am, but it wasn’t until 8 am, when the landlady was on her way to deliver a telegram to Mary that she noted smelling smoke again. She discovered soot in the hallway, which led to Mary Reeser’s apartment, and when she went to open the door, the handle was too hot to touch.
She then asked some neighbours to help her get into the apartment, where she found the cremated remains of Mary Reeser, whose skull had reportedly shrunken to the size of a cup. Parts of her spine also remained, but most disturbingly, was her foot, completely untouched, still in her black satin slipper. According to cremation experts, Mary’s body would have had to have burnt at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, or 148.889 degrees Celsius, for 3 – 4 hours. But, apart from the chair Mary sat in, the surrounding area of the apartment was relatively unaffected by the fire.
Near the site of the fire, the wall was un-scorched and showing no signs of cracked paint, and the upper walls were blackened by soot and smoke, but the lower half was not. The apartments light switches were scorched and melting, but the plug outlets below was unaffected, and a stack of newspaper nearby wasn’t touched. Also, none of Mary neighbours heard the fire that night, despite firemen coming on the scene describing the heat as so intense they ‘couldn’t stand it’, but also found no signs of smouldering.
Chief detective Cass Burgess described the case as ‘perplexing’, and Dr. Wilton Krogman, professor of physical anthropology was “amazed and baffled” and “could not conceive of such a complete cremation without more burning of the apartment itself.’”
He also stated that in his 30+ fire investigations, he had never seen a skull shrink like Mary’s had, as most skulls usually swell or explode. He said
“…. The head is not left complete in ordinary burning cases. Certainly it does not shrivel or symmetrically reduce to a smaller size. In the presence of heat sufficient to destroy soft tissues, the skull would literally explode in many pieces. I have never known any exceptions to this rule.”
Investigators sent samples of the chair, rug, debris and smoke to an FBI laboratory for chemical analysis but found no traces of combustibles. They did however find melted fat in the rug. There have been many speculations as to the cause of the fire. A local mattress company pointed out that the regular chair stuffing would not cause such a fire, and the material would only smoulder for an extended period of time. Lightning and electrical failure was also ruled out on the scene; however, Mary was reportedly seen smoking a cigarette in that chair the night before.
According to the FBI and police, the fire was most likely started by Mary falling asleep whilst smoking a cigarette, which possibly lead to her lighting her night gown on fire. The FBI have said that ‘once the body became ignited, almost complete destruction occurred from its own fatty tissues.
December the 5th, 1966. The death of Dr John Irving Bentley, was the case where I first read came across Spontaneous Human Combustion, back in my early teens.
It both repelled, horrified, and fascinated me. And what created my interest in this subject. Feelings that remain to this day
On the morning of December 5, a meter reader named Don Gosnell let himself in Dr. Bentley’s home to read the meter as he was allowed to do, owing to Dr Bentley’s infirmity. While in the basement, Gosnell noticed a “sweet (smell), like starting up a new oil-burning central heating system” and a light blue smoke. Investigating the area, he found a pile of ashes on the ground then moved upstairs to find Dr Bentley’s cremated remains in his bathroom, only his slippered foot and portion of his leg remaining untouched.
The fire from his body burned a hole in the linoleum floor, dropping the pile of ashes Gosnell discovered, and the hole created a stack effect, a process of ventilation of cooler air resulting in a hotter, longer burning flame, which would explain the total destruction of Dr Bentley’s body while his leg, farthest from the hole in the floor, was relatively untouched.
On September the 15th, 1982, a mentally handicapped woman named Jeannie Saffin was sitting with her elderly father and family, having dinner at the kitchen table, in Edmonton, Northern London. When a blue flame apparently emerged from her body. To her father’s horror, her upper body suddenly became engulfed in the flames.
Her brother-in-law Don Carroll said the flame shot from her stomach as she sat at the kitchen table in Edmonton, north London.
“She was roaring like a dragon,” he said. “The kitchen wasn’t damaged, but her cardigan melted. The inquest never sorted it out, but I know what I saw.”
The stove appeared to be unlit and no smoke or fire damage could be found anywhere else in the room. Even the wooden chair that she was sitting on at the time was spared. Mr. Saffin and his son-in-law, Donald Carroll, managed to put out the blaze, but, Jeannie died eight days later of her third-degree burns. Her Father had severe burns to his hands from trying to put out the flames on his daughter.
Investigators at the scene could not find any evidence to the contrary of what Jennie’s father had said. The room did not have any signs of burning or charring. The only charring was on Jennie Saffin’s body. Investigators were dumb-founded and confused as to what happened to Jennie on that cool day in London England. How was this possible that a woman sitting at her kitchen table suddenly burst into flames? Why did she remain calm as her father stated?
The investigators looked at every angle and still had no answer as to why this woman burst into flames. Nothing around her was burnt. How was it possible for this woman to burn so severely and not leave behind any other signs of a fire? Investigators looked at the death scientifically and came away with more questions than answers. Today the death of Jennie Saffin is still an unsolved mystery that leaves one to believe that she did indeed become a statistic of Spontaneous Human Combustion
In 2010, 76-year-old Michael Faherty of Galway, Ireland was found dead on his living room floor. His body was thoroughly burned, with his head lying beside his open fireplace. The ceiling space immediately above his body showed burn marks, and so did the floor beneath it. Yet nothing else in Faherty’s home was torched.
News of his tragic death probably wouldn’t have spread beyond the local obituaries if coroner Ciaran McLoughlin didn’t point to Spontaneous Human Combustion as its cause. “This fire was thoroughly investigated,” McLoughlin reported in an official statement, “and I’m left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation.” Not everyone’s convinced, though: Critics say that an ember from the fireplace could’ve landed on Faherty’s clothing and started a fatal blaze.
In 2015 an unnamed woman was appeared to spontaneously combust whilst sitting on a park bench in Flenshurg, Germany. As the flames sprouted from her body horrified witnesses rushed to her aid. One chap used his jacket to beat out the fire, but she suffered severe burns over most of her body. The woman was in her 40’s and came from Mauritius. Eye witnesses told the local media that the woman didn’t make as sound as the flames engulfed her. The news article doesn’t state if she survived.
Survivors of Spontaneous Human Combustion
As I mentioned earlier in this episode. Not all cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion are fatal. There are occasionally survivors of the experience. Here are some examples:
An 1836 edition of The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal contains a detailed report on the fiery experience of a thirty-something University of Nashville mathematics professor called simply “Mr. H.” The report, authored in the previous year by Dr. James Overton, describes in very precise terms how the professor’s left leg caught fire on January 5, 1835.
Here’s the basic story: in the middle of what was an otherwise normal day of classes and meteorological observations, Mr. H. was suddenly subjected to a sharp pain in his upper left leg. It began as a strong sensation, “as if produced by the pulling of a hair,” and grew more and more severe until a small flame finally hatched. Though in great pain and certainly flabbergasted by this turn of events, the professor retained his presence of mind and was able to extinguish the flame by using his own hands to starve it of oxygen.
Mr. H. survived the odd combustion and recovered. Later, in retelling his story to Dr. Overton, he described the flame as having a small base the size of a ten-cent coin and an appearance like that of mercury. The extent of the damage to Mr. H. was a 3″ x 3/4″ burn wound inflicted on his leg. His trousers suffered no damage at all, but his drawers sported a brand-new hole in the exact size and shape of the wound
January, 1932. From the Almamac of the infamous, the incredible, and the ignored, by Juanita Rose Violini. On A cold winter day in Bladenboro, North Carolina. Charles Williamson was downstairs listening to the radio when his wife’s cotton dress went up in flames. Her screams of terror brought Charles and their daughter to the rescue, and together they were able to tear off her dress before it was too late. Though Mrs. Williamson wasn’t hurt, the dress was reduced to not being a dress anymore. Mrs Williamson had not been in contact with flammable fluids or near anything that could have caused the ignition.
In winter 1980, Cheshire, England resident Susan Motteshead was standing in her kitchen, wearing flame-resistant pajamas, when she was suddenly engulfed in a short-lived fire that seemed to have ignited the fluff on her clothing but burned out before it could set anything properly alight.
“ I was in the kitchen and my daughter just screamed out that my back was on fire. As I looked down it sort of whooshed all over me. It was like yellow and blue flames all over me. I was not burned at all. Not even my hair was burned. ”
The daughter, Joanne Motteshead, confirms this account and adds that the fire brigade arrived and tried (unsuccessfully) to set fire to Susan’s pyjamas.
June 1985. Frank Baker, from Vermont, USA, served in the US Army in Vietnam, a highly-decorated former soldier had been preparing to go on a fishing trip with his friend Pete Willey. He and his friend were sitting on his couch at home getting ready for their trip, when suddenly Frank just burst into flames. He initially had no idea what has happening to him until his friend pointed it out. They both leapt to their feet and the men were able to extinguish the fire that was on his torso and forearm and get him to the hospital. The doctor informed Frank that his injuries were unlike anything he had seen before. And the doctor told him: “Frank, this burned from the inside out.” His experience was retold in an episode of the television series, ‘The Unexplained Files’
Unfortunately for Frank, he experienced a second similar event while fishing in a Vermont lake, again with his friend Pete. He says that he felt no pain during either event.
On November the 16th, 1985. Jeanna Winchester was riding in a car with her friend Leslie Scott. As they drove along Seaboard Avenue in Jacksonville, Florida, when Jeanna who was a naval airwoman, burst into flames and she screamed “Get me out of here!” Leslie, her friend, tried to beat out the flames with her hands, and the car ran into a telephone pole. Winchester survived the experience, with 20 percent of her body covered by burns.
A patrolman by the name of T. G. Hendrix investigated the crash and found no spilled gas or accelerant in the car. He found that the “white leather she was sitting on was a little browned and the door panel had a little black on it. But that was all the damage the car sustained from her body burning. When Jeanna was interviewed later, she claimed to have no memory between riding in the car and waking up in hospital, but said she wasn’t smoking and the window was rolled up, so nothing could have been thrown in.
Most recently, in 2013, there was a case in India that made the headlines world-wide. Doctors in India were baffled by a three-month-old baby who has spontaneously burst into flames four times, according to this parents. The doctors actually stated in news conferences, that it could have been a rare condition called Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC). I have included a small video on this case on this episode’s website page. But, was this actually a genuine case, or was it a case of Munchausen by proxy syndrome – a mental illness whereby a parent seeks to harm their child in order to get attention? Only the parents know for sure, but his parents maintain their innocence.
This subject is one that creates numerous feelings in people. Not the least for some, myself included, feelings of horror and fascination. And I sometimes think did they feel pain? Were they even aware? In the case of Lucille, her family all stated that she was extremely calm, and I have read that in other cases as well. As if they are not even aware of what is happening to them. Let’s hope that actually this is the case. Because, it’s too horrific, for me anyway, to think it might be any other way. And one can only hope that they were at least spared that knowing.
This subject raises so many questions and skeptics of Spontaneous Human Combustion raise some good questions. Questions like – why would it only occur in humans? Why wouldn’t it happen to cows, or dogs, or other animals as suddenly and randomly as it does with humans? Suddenly bursting into balls of flame. Even with this phenomenon being so incredibly rare, with the billions of us and animals on the planet, then shouldn’t we be seeing more of them, more often than we do?
I don’t have any answers, just more questions. But for me this remains a subject of interest, not withstanding feeling compassion for the remaining family members. Who knows? One day we may have some definitive answers. But for now, I guess it will continue to remain a mystery waiting to be solved.
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