Could this dangerous stunt be the last for daredevil magician, David Blaine? We examine the health issues and community impact of David Blaine’s Drowned Alive.
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By Norman Clausen
May 9, 2006
Sometimes the actions and accomplishments of one man can lift a whole society up on their backs, hoisting up the entire realm of possibilities open to us as men. When one man walked on the moon, mankind walked on the moon. When one man broke the four-minute mile, mankind ran the four-minute mile. Of course, this hasn’t personally gotten me closer to either achievement, unless you count sitting on my couch and watching the made-for-TV movie about the events. But as David Blaine put his life at risk, attempting to break the record for time spent underwater, and time holding one’s breath underwater, I felt closer—more immediately impacted. Not because I could hold my breath for nine minutes, nor because I had any intention of living underwater for six days, but because I could actually see it, touch it, feel it. Some will say that David Blaine’s stunts lift us all up—albeit in stupidity, insanity, foolishness. Some will say he has pushed the levels of endurance and the meditative powers of mind-over-matter to new heights. And some will watch his ABC special and wonder how they can get the last two hours of their lives back.
Regardless of which mindset you take, it was hard to walk past Lincoln Center for the last week and not at least take an interest in what amounts to be a startling feat of the incredibly brave or the incredibly stupid. And to be honest, even as a fan of Blaine, I wasn’t sure which way I was leaning until I saw him. But there he was, playfully interacting with the crowd—making a connection the way all great performers do. Only Blaine was unlike any performer to have graced the stages of Lincoln Center. Blaine was masked and bobbing peacefully in an 8-foot acrylic sphere filled with over 2,000 gallons of saltwater. Not your typical Sunday at the New York Opera.
New Yorkers were welcomed to view him 24 hours a day, and in the city that never sleeps, you can bet there’s always someone eager to see a stunt like this. From school children in the afternoon to the business crowd at dusk—the college kids returning from the bars to the Goths and vampires returning from the morgue or wherever it is they’re coming back from at 5AM—an estimated 100,000 people had viewed Blaine before his grand finale.
“It’s about bringing people together that wouldn’t normally be together,” Blaine has said. “That’s what magic is all about. That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
And whether he would break the records or not, the eclectic crowd that had gathered, waiting to approach the Blainequarium was certainly a testament to him accomplishing this goal. People of all ages, backgrounds, colors, and beliefs were standing around in conversation, drawn to this giant orb.
And making a special celebrity appearance with his children was character actor Tom Noonan. Maybe more impressive was the guy in front of me who actually picked out Tom Noonan like he was Brad Pitt. But come on, he practically is. I mean, Tom Noonan starred as the serial killer in the 1986 prequel to Silence of the Lambs, originally called Manhunter, but later redone as 2002’s Red Dragon, starring Edward Norton. Norton, of course, lit up the screen alongside a dreamy Brad in Fight Club. So you know, Tom Noonan has that going for him. And apparently he still has enough clout to skip the line—extremely graciously and with a bit of wonderment that someone actually knew him by name, I might add. They should have let the guy who recognized him skip the line too.
Tom Noonan aside, how was Blaine’s health after almost a week under water? There were reports of him breaking down physically and mentally over the past days, but David seemed to be in great spirits. As people approached, holding up signs and touching the glass, he waved and gave the thumbs up, touching their hands on the other side. When I actually got closer, it became more apparent that while Blaine’s spirit was great for the crowd, his eyes showed the fatigue and listlessness of a man pushed to the edge of human endurance. Still, I made eye contact with him and it genuinely moved me. Of course, he was so delirious that I probably looked like a giant chicken to him, but that was beside the point. Now, concerned for his health, I was rooting for his safety more than his achievement.
So, how do you keep a man alive inside an aquarium? Well, you certainly can’t overfeed him—that’s how I killed my Japanese fighting fish, Fluffy. But they must have gotten that memo, because David had lost a noticeable amount of weight since going in the bubble. He fasted for a week prior to the stunt, and continued to subsist on a fluid mixture of Gatorade and vitamins. Still, by day 6, he had lost 20% of all body fluids, thickening his blood and perhaps posing the most immediate threat on his life. The great stress and changes in blood pressure associated with holding his breath for nine minutes, combined with the sudden change in pressure around him and his thickened blood, could very easily send a blood clot directly to David’s brain. Plus he had almost complete liver failure by this point—with compounds in his blood usually regulated by his liver jumping to ten times the healthy rate.
The skin on his hands and feet had also become hyperkeratotic tissue—the lifecycle of his cells and their progression to death was extremely speeded—to the point where all of the skin was beginning to die and severely crack. If water were to make its way through the skin and into the nerves, he could sustain permanent damage to his fine motor movements. For a man who made his fame primarily as a street magician with superior slight of hand, even the smallest loss in dexterity could potentially mean and end to his career. And though, I hadn’t considered it, my girlfriend was quick to point out concerns of shrinkage, maybe permanent shrinkage. But I’m sure she was just trying to boost my ego after taking the first 30 minutes of his ABC special to tell me how sexy he is.
Of course, the main concern would be lack of oxygen to the brain (cerebral hypoxia), which many Blaine detractors would likely claim that he suffered before coming up with this stunt. Cerebral hypoxia could result in preliminary brain damage as quickly as 5 minutes into his 9-minute marathon. And that’s exactly the kind of stress for which he prepared.
"I'd breathe for a minute,” Blaine said, “Hold my breath for five minutes immediately after, and then right after that, breathe a minute, hold for six minutes and keep going for all the way up to an hour. In that process, your CO2 levels become so high, your body has to work like a marathon runner to get rid of it."
Blaine dropped over 50 pounds in attempting to streamline his body like a marathon runner, trying to cut down on fat and muscle that would deplete his oxygen supply. Despite the typical training efforts to drop mass—dieting, running, lifting low weights at extremely high reps—Blaine credits these breathing exercises for allowing him to lose so much weight in the months leading up to his stunt. Don’t be surprised if we've just found the next crash diet to hit Hollywood. For a while, I had my money on Lindsay Lohan’s Drunken Catfighting classes becoming the new fad, but keep an eye out for Blaine Breathing at your local NYSC.
The tension leading up to the final breath hold was palpable. My girlfriend couldn’t watch, and even I was afraid for the worst. As he began his run at 9 minutes—a mark that would unofficially best the underwater record of 8:58—all while freeing himself from 150 lbs. of chains attached with 8 different shackles, an audience of millions held their breath along with him. I made my own attempt from the comfort of my couch. There was no crowd of thousands chanting my name, no pressure, no week of living underwater behind me. I made it 2 minutes, 37 seconds. And I probably breathed through my nose. But isn’t that what magic is all about? The illusion. The idea that someone can do the impossible. I don’t know how much of Blaine’s performance was authentic and how much was magic, but after about 6 minutes, he was blue and shaking violently. If this was an act, it was Oscar-worthy. After another gut-wrenching minute, and Blaine’s failure to get the final four shackles off his feet, world champion dive trainer, Kirk Krack, called for a freedive rescue to pull him out of the water at an impressive 7 minutes and 8 seconds.
When all was said and done, no records were broken, nor were the hearts of the crowd. Blaine failed to reach nine minutes, but if there wasn’t a rescue team on hand, he would have died. We’ll soon see what, if any, the permanent affects of this stunt will be. Hopefully he’s gained nothing more than respect. The man is not made of iron, but he has steely determination that is admirable on any front. As Blaine recovered, weakened and propped up by divers, microphone held to his mouth, he cited the spirit of the crowd for making the time fly by. “I love you all,” he said, “Thank you.” As he looked on the crowd teary eyed, this iron-willed man bared his heart and allowed all of us to embrace him in his vulnerability. The connection between Blaine and the crowd, the connection he made us feel for each other, for the possibilities of mankind—that was the true magic.