“Once you start doing what you thought was impossible, you’ll conquer the other fires of your life with ease.”
But Thursday night’s coal walk in Dallas didn’t go so well for dozens of seminar attendees: Five people were taken to the hospital and about 30 to 40 were evaluated after sustaining “burn injuries to their feet and lower extremities” after attempting to walk across hot coals in front of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, said Dallas Fire and Rescue spokesman Jason Evans said,
Multiple rescue units were sent, and a Dallas Area Rapid Transit bus held the 30 to 40 patients who were being evaluated, according to officials.
“The severity of the injuries were unknown, but most people elected not to be taken to the hospital,” Evans said.
A total of 7,000 people participated in the fire walk “which has been a celebrated part of this event for 35 years,” Jennifer Connelly, a spokeswoman for Robbins, said in a statement.
“Someone unfamiliar with the process of the fire walk called 911 reporting the need for emergency services vehicles to be dispatched,” she said. “While there was no need for emergency personnel we are grateful to the quick and robust response from Dallas emergency services, only 5 of 7,000 participants requested any examination beyond what was readily available on site. We are pleased to have completed another successful fire walk for 7,000 guests and look forward to the remainder of an outstanding weekend with them.”
City officials knew in advance that there were plans for some kind of coal-walking event at the seminar, convention center director Ron King told the Dallas Morning News.
“He did it two years ago without any incidents that we are aware of,” King told the newspaper.
Event organizers had the necessary permits for the coal walk, including one for flammable and combustible liquids, and one for open burning/recreational fires, said Evans, the Dallas Fire and Rescue spokesman. Two fire prevention officers, two paramedics and one rescue unit were also a part of the organizers’ plans, Evans said.
All of the circumstances surrounding the event will be considered before deciding whether to bring Robbins back for another seminar, King added.
“We do take the safety of our attendees very seriously,” King said, according to the Dallas Morning News. “Safety will be the primary consideration before we consider moving forward with a future event.”
One attendee told WFAA that some of those attempting the walk were distracted.
“There was someone in front of us and someone behind us on their cellphone, taking selfies and taking pictures,” Jacqueline Luxemberg told the station. That person, Luxemberg said, asked others “to video record for her, so I think that that has a lot to do with it.”
Connelly, the spokeswoman for Robbins, said: “It is always the goal to have no guests with any discomfort afterwards but it’s not uncommon to have fewer than 1 percent of participants experience ‘hot spots,’ which is similar to a sunburn which can be treated with aloe. As always there were trained medical and event staff at the fire walk specifically to offer quick and easy remedies for any soreness.”
This isn’t the first time a Robbins coal walk has resulted in injuries.
In 2012, nearly two dozen people were injured during a “Unleash the Power Within” seminar in San Jose, Calif. Thousands walked across the hot coals in the walk that included 24 lanes, each measuring eight feet long.
“We have been safely providing this experience for more than three decades, and always under the supervision of medical personnel,” Robbins Research International said at the time.
“A small number of our participants experienced pain or minor injuries and sought medical attention,” it said. “We continue to work with local fire and emergency personnel to ensure this event is always done in the safest way possible.”
For thousands of years, people around the globe have practiced “fire walking.” Rituals developed independently in places such as India and Greece, where they were featured during religious ceremonies or as a rite of passage.
The earliest known reference to fire walking dates to 1200 B.C., in India, according to now retired University of Pittsburgh professor David Willey.
Willey, who once held the world record for longest fire walk, has written extensively on the science behind the walk, and why it is that humans can complete them unhurt.
“Although it was, and still is by some, thought to be a paranormal phenomena, it has actually been fairly well understood, and has been explained using the principles of physics for at least the last half century,” Willey has written.
It’s quite possible to walk across coals without landing in the hospital. First of all, “wood is a lousy conductor,” Willey told National Geographic in 2005, and so are human feet. Conduction is the main way heat transfers from coals to feet during walks.
Coals that burn no hotter than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit shouldn’t burn participants. But the trick is to make that walk snappy. Brief foot-to-coal contact is important.
“It is neither necessary nor advisable to run, a brisk walk is reported to work best, with each step taking half a second or less,” Willey has written. For a 14-foot fire walk, “each foot will be in contact for a total time of a second or so.”
The Guinness World Record for longest fire walk, set in 2007, clocked in at just under 600 feet.
But while science explains why many people, for centuries, have walked fiery paths unscathed, there still is a mental component involved.
“You’ve got to believe you’re going to be okay, otherwise you wouldn’t do it,” Willey, the physics professor, told National Geographic. “But what your mind-set is has got absolutely nothing to do with whether you’re going to burn or not.”
Bates College anthropologist Loring Danforth wrote a book comparing Greek rituals with 20th-century New Age fire walking in the United States. He notes its use by Robbins and others.
Danforth has referred to American fire walking as “a ritual therapy,” one that “asserts the power of the self, a self that is free from the limits and constraints imposed by social responsibilities and moral obligations.”
“Firewalking offers people a liberating experience of self-realization … in a world where great value is placed on individual freedom of expression and self-determination,” Danforth said.
[This post has been updated.]