David Blaine: Drowned Alive? Part VII ‘Curtain Down’

That’s All Folks!

So it ends, not exactly with a bang, nor quite with a whimper.

Performance Artist, Illusionist, Magician and newbie diver David Blaine has ended his 177-hour stay in a water-filled acrylic sphere, failing in his attempt to free himself from chains and shackles while holding his breath beyond the 9-minute mark.

David Blaine - Aerial View
Copyright 2006 Paul Kotik/DeeperBlue.net

Blaine’s apnea climax was ended on orders from internationally renowned freediving instructor Kirk Krack, who responded to the performer’s evident distress by ordering Performance Freediving athletes Mandy-Rae Cruickshank and Martin Stepanek into the sphere where they executed a classic freediving rescue enhanced by Martin’s frantic efforts to unlock the shackles holding Blaine’s feet to the sphere bottom. The official clock read 7:02 when David Blaine’s airway broke the surface.

David Blaine - Kirk and David before climax
Copyright 2006 Paul Kotik/DeeperBlue.net

David Blaine appeared very emotional as greeted the huge crowd assembled at Lincoln Center for the 2-hour ABC TV live special capping the week-long Drowned Alive! event.

David Blaine - Kirk before climax
Copyright 2006 Paul Kotik/DeeperBlue.net

The plan for Blaine’s Houdini-like climax was changed following a final rehearsal earlier in the day. The script had called for the performer to be removed from the 2,000-gallon sphere, shackled, annd then lowered back into the fluid sans regulator for his apnea escape. Blaine’s deteriorating physiological data forced the rewrite – his plasma volume had dropped to about 70% of normal, and his doctors were concerned that Blaine might lose consciousness if subjected to the sudden loss of vascular support provided by the small ( about .10 ATM) but significant hydrostatic pressure of the liquid. The outside temperature, too, had dropped during this final day of the event and had fallen below 50 Farenheit as evening approached.

Hurried and occasionally pyrotechnic debate between the production, artistic, commercial and medical factions led to the compromise seen by the spectators and millions of television viewers worldwide.

The fluid level in the sphere was reduced to about the level of David Blaine’s shoulders, allowing his head to emerge from the liquid for the first time since he’d entered a week before. After several teases by the Master of Ceremonies, interrupted for commercial spots, the plan to have Blaine speak a few words before dropping back down was abandoned – wisely so, in the view of several of the A-List performers in the VIP section.

A wet-suited gentleman dropped into the sphere with Blaine and shackled his ankles and wrists with formidable-looking chrome-plated chains and cuffs. Performer and jailer breathed from regulators, filling the sphere with bubbles. I noted that Blaine’s respiration rate was about half that of the props man’s.

The genius of the sphere’s design became apparent during the climactic apnea segment of the Drowned Alive! stunt. The curvature of the one-inch-thick transparent acrylic yields rather interesting and useful optical properties. When the man inside presses his body against the inner wall, he becomes essentially invisible from all points of view save those in a straight line with his dorsal and ventral surfaces. Lying on the bottom as he did, for example, while sleeping, Blaine nearly vanishes to all points of view except those directly above and below the sphere – where there are no vantage points for would-be viewers. The cameras and the television producers rule.

Blaine’s breathe-up for the apnea stunt was done while standing, his head in the space left after the sphere had been partially drained. The sphere was closed, the hatch in place. It was difficult to discern the expansion and contraction of his chest and abdomen until the final two minutes of the breathe-up, when his belly showed the classic signs of abdominal breathing.

Kirk Krack called out the countdown to apnea just as he has thousands of times before in countless training sessions, courses and competitions. Blaine took his peak inhalation, and down he went. The script called for a 4-minute static apnea before he was to begin dealing with his shackles, and so, more or less, it was.

He settled against the back ( west ) of the sphere, body conforming to the concavity, and sank down a bit. From the VIP section, his body became nothing but a thick, dark line, visually compressed by the sphere’s refractive effect. The VIP’s ( film stars, authors, athletes – you know them, but it wouldn’t be polite for me to name names !) were festive and mostly attentive. Blaine had personally chosen the individuals he wanted standing in the front row of the celeb crowd. He closed his eyes (as we saw on a monitor screen) and settled back, holding his breath.

The celebs were swept away with the rest of the spectators as David Blaine became re-animated and began to fiddle with the handcuffs. The shouts began – ” He’s freed his right hand !” – or not, ” He’s freed both hands !”, but no – “He can’t free his hands !”.

The end came when Blaine showed textbook symptoms of impending blackout. His abdomen and chest went through a series of profound contractions, and he release bubbles from his mouth. Kirk Krack did what he’s done uncountable times before and pulled the plug on an apnea performance. Martin Stepanek and Mandy-Rae Cruickshank were inside the sphere in a flash, Mandy protecting Blaine’s airway while Martin struggled to unlock the shackles on his ankles. It was over.

The ABC stopwatch read 7:02. Mine read 7:28 – from my point of view, Blaine still appeared to be completely submerged when his head had, in fact, cleared the water.

After taking oxygen for some minutes while resting supine on the surface of the water, he descended the ladder on his own two feet, albeit with much-needed support from Kirk.  An hour later, he’s dejected by his failure to free himself from the chains, but he’ll doubtless feel differently after some food, some sleep and a look at tomorrow’s media raves.

The End of FreeDiving? Not !

The event could not have ended better for the freediving community. Simply put, the story ended with real freedivers saving the performer’s bacon. Real freedivers practicing the real freediving rescue techniques they’ve developed and taught to hundreds of students all over the world.

Up to a few days ago, Blaine was sending notes out to the Performance Freediving team asking to come do some deep freediving out in the Team’s home waters of British Columbia. While the last day or two of his stay in the sphere may have turned his thoughts away from water and more toward, say, a long vacation in the Gobi Desert, David Blaine is the kind of man it is easy to see joining the Usual Suspects, the dedicated freedivers who surface at the regular venues for training and for  the cool events. His interest in the sport is genuine, enthusiastic, and he’s an athletic fellow. I’d like to dive with him.

So, you ask, what about that 7:08 breath-hold ? Seven minutes, eight seconds. Pretty good apnea time for a national-class AIDA competitor under ideal conditions. What’s up with that ?

Simple. It was magic.

Full disclosure: my grandfather’s a magician. Former professional, now amateur who uses it chiefly to flirt with waitresses. I’ve known magic, all kinds of magic since I was a tiny little boy. But you see, I can’t tell you how it’s done – that would be against the magicians’ creed.  Magicians aren’t allowed to reveal the secrets of their magic – except, as Hollywood’s Larry David pointed out, to other magicians. You’re not magicians, so I can’t tell you. I’ve done a little magic myself – including a freediving stunt (shown below) in New York City !

David Blaine - Guy in Toilet
Copyright 2006 Paul Kotik/DeeperBlue.net

For some reason, my event got very little publicity.

Team Performance Freediving represented our sport and our community with honor and with dignity, and deserve a huge round of applause for giving freediving a boost that may turn out to be the kind of historical singularity Besson’s film was back in 1988. They’re back at their hotel now, packing up to fly out to the West Coast and teach freediving to a select class of elite big-wave surfers.

David Blaine - Kirk and Martin
Copyright 2006 Paul Kotik/DeeperBlue.net

Freedivers, all divers – we’re on a roll.

There’s More!

Read more coverage of the David Blaine event from Paul in our David Blaine: Drowned Alive? Special Feature Series and check out the Photo Gallery and Audio Interviews!

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