Record of Investigation Into Death (Without Inquest)
Corners Act 1995
Coroners Rules 2006
I, Simon Cooper, Coroner, having investigated a death of Tanya Maree Burns
(a) The identity of the deceased is Tanya Maree Burns;
(b) Ms Burns died as a result of incineration, with smoke inhalation, due to a house fire;
(c) Ms Burns died on 15 May 2012 at Rokeby in Tasmania;
(d) Ms Burns was born in Hobart on 17 February 1971 and was aged 41 years on the date of her death;
(e) Ms Burns never married and her occupation at the date of death was home duties; and
(f) No person contributed to her death.
Circumstances Surrounding the Death:
Ms Burns had been living with her daughter, Alannah, at Rokeby, for about 12 months. Her daughter was part-owner of the property, having inherited it with her two sisters upon the death of their grandmother in February 2012.
In addition to Ms Burns and her daughter, two of Tanya’s friends also resided in the house at the time of Tanya’s death. The evidence was that it was Ms Burns’ practice to sleep on a sofa bed in the lounge area, whilst Alannah and her two friends shared a bedroom. The other two bedrooms in the house were full of rubbish and property and unable to be used, and the house itself was generally in a state of disrepair.
The only operable smoke detector in the house was in the bedroom occupied by Alannah and her friends.
Ms Burns was a heavy smoker, and although she suffered from depression, asthma, emphysema and alcohol dependence there was no history at all of her having attempted suicide in the past.
On the evening of 14 May 2012 Ms Burns was watching television from her bed in the lounge room while the other occupants of the house were in the shared bedroom. Around 10.30pm Alannah went out to the lounge room to ask her mother for a cigarette but saw that she was asleep. Alannah took a cigarette and returned to the bedroom, before falling asleep shortly after.
At about 2.50am the following morning (15 May 2012) the fire alarm in Alannah’s bedroom activated. The bedroom door was opened and what was described as ‘heaps’ of smoke came into the bedroom.
Alannah then headed towards the lounge room of the house to see to her mother. She attempted to open the door to the lounge room but burnt her hand on the metal door handle. She left the house straight away by the front door and immediately called out to the other occupants to vacate the house, which they did via the bedroom’s boarded up window.
Crews from the Tasmanian Fire Service arrived at 3.13am. I am satisfied that the response of the Tasmanian Fire Service was timely. Upon arrival it was noted that the house was fully involved by fire. Fire suppression and then a search of the house by fire fighters wearing breathing apparatus was immediately commenced. Ms Burns’ body was located face down in the lounge room near the front window of that room at 3.27am adjacent to the remains of the sofa bed upon which she had previously been seen sleeping. Police were by this time already in attendance and the scene was secured.
An investigation was commenced by Regional Fire Investigation Officer Station Officer John Ling at 4.24am whilst fire fighting activities were still underway. The fire investigation proper commenced at 6.15am and continued until completion later that day (Station Officer Ling being joined by Station Officer Marcus Skelly at 8.38am, with Station Officer Skelly assisting with the investigation thereafter).
The fire investigation determined that the initial site, and only point of origin, of the fire was adjacent to the sofa bed. It was also determined that there was no electrical fault responsible for the cause of the fire, with a bar heater, identified as a potential source of the fire, being able to be positively excluded.
Ms Burns’ body was removed from the house at approximately 10.30am and transported to the Hobart Mortuary. It was able to be positively identified by the use of finger print records.
A post mortem examination of Ms Burns was conducted on 15 May 2012. As a result of that procedure Dr Christopher Lawrence, the State Forensic Pathologist, determined that the cause of death was ‘incineration with smoke inhalation, due to a house fire’. Specifically he noted that autopsy revealed soot in Ms Burns’s upper airways which in turn indicated smoke inhalation. This in his opinion meant that Ms Tanya Burns died during the fire. Dr Lawrence noted the carbon monoxide level in her body was very low (9%) and noted also that the body was significantly burnt suggesting her death occurred before she absorbed much carbon monoxide from the smoke.
Also of note were toxicology results which revealed a greater than therapeutic level of the antidepressant amitriptyline in her body.
I accept this opinion. I am satisfied that Ms Burns died of incineration due to the fire in her house.
A thorough and comprehensive police investigation determined that there were no suspicious circumstances. There is no evidence whatsoever which would allow of a conclusion that any other person was involved in any way in Tanya Burns’ death.
Station Officer Ling expressed the view as a result of his and Station Officer Skelly’s comprehensive investigation that the most likely, indeed almost only, scenario is that the fire started as a consequence of Ms Burns lighting a cigarette whilst she was in bed sometime after she was visited by her daughter Alannah Burns. Having lit that cigarette it seems most likely that she fell asleep whilst the cigarette was still alight. Station Officer Ling expressed the view that the cigarette has most likely then ignited bedding and smouldered for several hours until a time when it was able to grow strong enough to produce a flame. I accept that opinion. In all of the circumstances this appears to be the most likely scenario and, as indicated earlier, there is no other explanation for the either the source or cause of the fire. Specifically, the inspection carried out by Aurora inspector at the request of Station Officer Ling and determined that electricity had no part in causing the fire. This is an opinion that I also accept.
In summary I am satisfied that Tanya Burns died as a result of being incinerated in a house fire and the house fire was most likely caused by her having lit a cigarette whilst in bed and falling asleep while it was still alight.
Comments and Recommendations:
I note that the only working fire alarm was in one bedroom of the house and, fortuitously, the one occupied at the time by Alannah Burns and two other persons. Had there not been a working fire alarm in that bedroom it is highly likely, in my view, that this fire would have caused multiple fatalities.
It is also worth noting that had the front bedroom not been occupied at the time the fire alarm activated it remains unlikely that it would have given sufficient prior warning for Ms Burns. However, had a working alarm been fitted in the lounge room where she was sleeping its activation may have given sufficient warning to prevent this tragic death.
Numerous recommendations have been made in the past by other Coroners as to the need for any buildings used as residential accommodation to have properly fitted and working smoke alarms. I see no value in repeating such a recommendation for the proposition is beyond any argument.
I thank Station Officers Ling and Skelly for their comprehensive and professional investigation and report.
Before I conclude this matter I wish to convey my sincere condolences to the family of Ms Burns
DATED : 31 December 2013 at Hobart in the State of Tasmania