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Woman electrocuted by etching machine salvaged from dumpster

Publish Date
Mon, 3 Jun 2024, 3:00pm
The petition calls for Government to help "alleviate" the consequences of the disaster. (Photo / File)
The petition calls for Government to help "alleviate" the consequences of the disaster. (Photo / File)

Woman electrocuted by etching machine salvaged from dumpster

Publish Date
Mon, 3 Jun 2024, 3:00pm

A homemade etching machine salvaged from a dumpster after the Christchurch earthquake has been found to have caused the death of a woman on the West Coast. 

Coroner Rachael Schmidt-McCleave has released her findings into the death of Christine Rowley, saying her death by electrocution underscores the hazards associated with fractal burning. 

The 66-year-old was discovered by a delivery driver lying dead on the floor of her Inangahua Junction store in 2020. 

The recently released coronial findings detail how a driver was carrying boxes into the store on December 3 and saw a customer waiting at the counter. 

When Rowley - the store’s sole operator - didn’t appear the driver went through to the back of the store to find her lying on the ground. 

Rowley’s sister Marylin Corsom arrived shortly after and as she touched her sister’s arm, received an electric shock. The delivery driver then followed the extension cord of the box and turned the power off. 

Emergency services arrived shortly after determining Rowley had died from an accidental high-voltage electrocution. 

Rowley ran a general store in Inangahua Junction, where she also sold her own arts and crafts, made clothing, and performed repairs using sewing machines. 

Her son, Phillip Leigh Rowley, a self-employed electrician in Christchurch, had given her a homemade etching device he found in a dumpster after the Christchurch earthquake in 2011. 

He had shown her how to use it for wood burning but was unaware she had taken it to Inangahua and was using it to create art. Rowley had been using the device for a technique called fractal burning. 

Leigh acknowledged the device had no safety measures other than a circuit breaker and said he would have taken it from her if he knew she still had it, according to Coroner Schmidt-McCleave. 

Fractal burning, or Lichtenberg burning, uses high-voltage electricity to create intricate, branch-like patterns on wood by passing current through an electrically conductive solution applied to the surface. 

Despite its striking visual results, this technique is extremely dangerous and poses significant risks of electrocution and serious injuries, leading safety experts to discourage its use by amateurs. 

Coroner Schmidt-McCleave said it appeared Rowley, when undertaking fractal burning, had made contact with those live exposed conductive parts on the electrical device, or the current flow created on the wood, during the burning process. 

“Both the use of these devices and the technique of fractal burning, are extremely dangerous as they typically contain live accessible wiring and components which make them unsafe for any use or handling,” Schmidt-McCleave said. 

“Fractal burning around the world has been associated with devastating high-voltage electrical injuries and death. 

“I urge the New Zealand public not to attempt this dangerous activity and emphasise that there is no way to make a fractal burning device safe without a specifically designed enclosed apparatus.” 

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