Did mountain fire kill tourist?


(eTN) – The elderly British tourist found dead after a fire on Table Mountain could have died of a heart attack, the doctor who did the post mortem examination conceded on Monday.

However, the most likely cause of death was the burns that covered Janet Chesworth’s entire body, Dr Sonata Walraven told the Cape Town Regional Court.

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She was testifying at the trial of British national Anthony Cooper, who is alleged to have started the fire in January last year by tossing a burning cigarette butt onto dry grass.

Cooper has pleaded not guilty to culpable homicide and a contravention of the National Forestry Act.

In her post-mortem report Walraven noted that the 66-year-old Chesworth had reportedly been walking on the mountain with her daughter when the fire occurred.

She noted in the report that Chesworth’s entire body was burned, with areas charred and blistered. The bra wires and the rims of Chesworth’s glasses had not burned away.

“One hundred percent burns are fatal,” Walraven told the court.

“They are always fatal.”

Chesworth’s limbs had been drawn up in the “pugulistic” position typical of burn victims, caused by muscles contracting as they were cooked by the heat.

The cause of death Walraven listed on the report was “due to burning and the consequences thereof”.

She told the court she had not been able to get a copy of Chesworth’s medical history, but assumed that someone walking around on the mountain was relatively fit.

She had found “subtle pathology” of the heart, which was normal for a 66-year-old old, and said that the possibility of a heart condition contributing to Chesworth’s death could not be excluded.

Walraven noted in her written report that Chesworth’s broken watch had stopped at 4.59pm.

However under cross-examination by Cooper’s advocate, Reuben Liddell, she conceded that the time shown on photographs of the watch was in fact 3.59pm.

She told Liddell that she had not been able to see soot in Chesworth’s airways, and that tissue analysis did not show microscopic soot either.

This suggested Chesworth either died very quickly, or held something over her mouth against the smoke.

Under prompting from Liddell, she conceded that there was a third alternative: that Chesworth died before the fire reached her.

Asked if she could exclude this possibility, Walraven replied: “I cannot exclude it based on what we have here”.

“What you have is someone who could have died before the fire got to her,” said Liddell.

“That is correct,” said Walraven.

She said the autopsy had revealed that Chesworth’s left anterior coronary artery was 50 percent blocked, but said the chances of the blockage “causing something” on the day of the fire without prior symptoms were very small.

Microscopic examination had revealed sub-endocardial fibrosis, minute scarring of some heart muscle fibres, which meant that at some stage in Chesworth’s past there had been a shortage of oxygen to those fibres.

Under questioning from Liddell, she conceded that the possibility of a massive heart attack at the time of the fire could not be excluded, but said she would need Chesworth’s clinical history to see if it was likely.

“You cannot say her death was caused by the fire?” asked Liddell.

“I cannot definitely say,” said Walraven.

“It is possible that she died before the fire got to her,” said Liddell.

“Yes, it is possible,” said Walraven.

However, she added, the most likely cause of death was the burns.

The trial continues on Thursday.