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1999 Personal Accounts
The Darwin Awards salutes the spirit portrayed in the following personal accounts, submitted by loyal (and sometimes deceased) readers. Next


Helium and Oxygen Don't Mix 
1999 Personal Account

(1 May 1999) Even I find this story hard to believe, but here's what I overheard at a large family dinner:

My Uncle qualified for a Darwin Award. During his life, he studied Astral Projection, Remote Viewing, and Psychokinesis. During his time here on Earth, he spent his entire life savings--twice! Once he built a large metal sphere, claiming he could use it to talk to aliens, and buried it in his backyard. It is, however, the second time he used up all of his money that I want to tell you about..

My dear Uncle suffered from back pain. Being the creative inventor that he was, he devised a scheme to relieve his suffering. He used his second fortune to construct a gigantic balloon, 8 feet in circumference. He purchased many, many tanks of helium and oxygen. Then, using a garden hose, he connected the oxygen to an old gas mask, and he climbed inside the balloon. He turned on the helium to fill the balloon while he breathed into his gas mask.

He did not go flying into space. As the balloon filled, it rose from the ground and was trapped under the roof of his porch, as he had planned.

His back no longer aching because of his levitation, my Uncle soon fell asleep. Unknown to him, as the balloon filled up, the oxygen hose got pinched off, leaving him breathing only helium in his sleep.

Eight hours later, his wife came home to find him tethered under the porch in a giant balloon, dead, smelling like he'd cooked all day in the sun. © 1994 - 2012

Submitted by: Collin Green

Jeff Kaskey, who enjoys "debunking when appropriate," says, ""The looniest story, entitled 'Fun with Helium,' involves someone who killed himself inventively within a helium balloon. The balloon is described as being 8 feet in circumference. Let us assume generously an 8-foot cube containing 512 cubic feet of helium. Helium at STP ("Standard Temperature and Pressure", about 22C and 1 ATM) has 1.1 ounces of lift per cubic foot. Air weighs 1.3oz/cu-ft, helium 0.2oz/cu-ft.This gives it a total lift of 35 pounds. He must have been on a diet."

And a rebuttal by Darrell Johnson on 29 March 2000: "People who don't work much with math often confuse circumference, radius, and diameter. "Circumference" was clearly a mistake, as it would have a diameter of merely 2.5 feet, and he wouldn't fit inside. If the balloon was 8 feet in radius, it would have a a lift of roughly 150 pounds. If this Uncle was a scrawny man with a light oxygen bottle, it might well have worked. At any rate, why assume that the submitter knew the exact numbers? Furthermore, perhaps the balloon was too big to fit under the porch ceiling, and touched both top and bottom, making it impossible for the people who discovered him to determine whether the balloon floated or not. Obviously, we can't assume that this poor fellow had it all figured out properly; after all, he hoped to float into orbit, and failed to account for the porch roof when he inflated the thing. Witnesses give poor evidence; they usually fill in gaps with guesses and rationalizations. You have to expect inconsistencies, especially ones that the typical person wouldn't notice. Merely pointing them out does not invalidate the general truth of the story.

Mr. Bunnell adds a medical insight, "I don't think he died from falling asleep. Unless he worked in a hospital he most likely did not realize that his lungs would not be capable of using the dry oxygen from the tank. Compressed oxygen is completely moisture-free. Our lungs require a minimal amount of humidity to keep the membranes moist and let gases pass through. As soon as he started breathing pure oxygen, his lungs would have dried up, and he would feel as though he were suffocating. My guess is that he assumed the mask was leaking and he was choking on helium, so in a panic he tried to seal the mask against his face. He then must have passed out before he could realize that the oxygen wasn't helping. If he had been able to get to a moisture-rich environment right away, there is a chance he could have recovered."

Joey "Revoltionaire" says, "Mr Bunnell suggests that the drying effect of pure oxygen would have been enough to kill in under eight hours. This is untrue. As a nurse and a field medic I've seen people go almost a week on 100% O2, non-rebreathing at 15L/min and live to tell the tale, albeit sounding painfully raspy and with a mouth that looked like a dried river bed. Oxygen will pick up trace moisture from anywhere. Had he peed or sweated in the balloon, the moisture from that would have found its way onto any circulating oxygen quickly. I believe it was a lack of oxygen that killed him. Breathing pure helium would have killed him through suffocation leading to hypoxia. The pinched O2 tube killed him, that and being a complete plank."

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