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Woman died of burns after dropping cigarette or match, inquest hears
An elderly woman died after dropping a lit match or cigarette into her lap, causing her clothing and chair to catch fire, an inquest heard.
Patricia Matthew, 87, was found dead in a chair in her lounge at her flat at Gunters Mead, Copsem Lane, Esher, on March 21 last year after a fire took hold.
An inquest at Woking Coroner’s Court on Thursday, February 6, heard that Mrs Matthew had declining mobility, was a heavy smoker and enjoyed drinking wine and sherry.
On the night of the fire, the alarm in Mrs Matthew’s flat automatically alerted fire crews at 9.09pm, with firefighters from Esher fire station arriving at 9.18pm.
Upon entering the flat, firefighters found Mrs Matthew in her chair surrounded by flames. She was pronounced dead at the scene at about 10pm.
Keith Leman, fire investigation officer, told the inquest: “It was quite clear from entering the flat the fire was caused around the chair. Mrs Matthew was in the chair. Looking in the area, there was a table next to the chair and there was a coffee mug which was half full.
“There were remains of smoked cigarettes and a couple of matches on the table. In the remains of the chair, there were two packets of cigarettes and some matches.
“The most likely cause was probably Mrs Matthew dropping a cigarette on her lap and setting fire to her clothing or the chair.”
Mr Leman told the inquest that a can of Febreze, which was next to the chair, had also ruptured as the fire took hold.
He said: “That would have accelerated the fire for some time.”
Elizabeth Byrne, former care manager at Gunters Mead, lived at the sheltered accommodation alongside residents and was on duty from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday, with an emergency care line switched on when she was off duty.
She said: “The first I knew was when I could hear a noise outside and I looked out at the driveway to see a lot of fire engines. The call was made by her smoke alarm.
“I knew which building it was in. To be honest, I knew it was going to be her [Patricia] because she had a few false alarms previously when she’d left the oven on a few times.”
A toxicology report stated that 148mg of alcohol per decilitre was found in her blood, along with carboxyhemoglobin levels, the amount of carbon monoxide in the blood, of 6.7 per cent.
Mr Leman said the levels would be consistent with someone who smoked and believed that she died as a result of burns rather than inhalation of smoke.
Coroner Karen Henderson said: “When you saw her were her burns substantial? Would you say they were 100 per cent?”
Mr Leman said: “Yes. Pretty much.”
Dr Michael Hall, pathologist, carried out a post-mortem examination and concluded that Mrs Matthew died as a result of inhalation of hot toxic fumes, but after hearing evidence, coroner Henderson changed the cause of death to severe burns and frailty of old age.
Summing up, coroner Henderson said: “It is clear to me this is an accidental death.”
Surrey Fire and Rescue Service offer free home fire safety visits and advice to any property. To book a visit, call 0800 0850767.
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