Update: Tough Mudder – Witnesses Describe Rescue as Slow / Disorganized

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plank4(If you were there – please help:  A Call for Videos)

recent article by Andrew Metcalf at Patch includes witnesses describing the rescue efforts (or lack of rescue efforts) after Sengupta’s friends reported that he did not surface from the jump.  Nicholas Sayers was at the Walk The Plank obstacle watching his sister participate in the Tough Mudder:

…it seemed like almost five minutes passed before a rescue diver began a search for Sengupta. He said he was told to clear the area by staff members before Sengupta was pulled from the water.

“Only one diver was in the water searching for the body when I left,” said Sayers.

Antoinette DiVittorio, a 35-year-old Alexandria woman, said she was also at the event watching her boyfriend compete. She said she was watching the Walk the Plank obstacle when Sengupta jumped.

“I was waiting on the side where the water was, watching people jump in,” said DiVittorio. “His teammates were waiting on the side of the water when one guy said to a staff member ‘my teammate jumped into the water and didn’t come out yet.’”

She said the staff member didn’t take action for a few minutes after being told Sengupta was still in the water. It wasn’t until one of Sengupta’s teammates and herself asked the staff member, “Why aren’t you doing anything?”, that the staff member took action, she said.

“At that point in time they made everyone stop jumping,” said DiVittorio. She said one staff member in a wetsuit began searching the top of the water. She said he did that for a couple of minutes when another staff member ran down to the site, asked what was going on, and once he found out, he ordered the other staff member to put on a scuba tank and goggles to search underwater.

“It seemed like an extensive period of time went by before anyone went under,” said DiVittorio. “Within one minute of trolling the bottom, they pulled him out.”

DiVittorio estimated that an ambulance didn’t arrive until about 30 minutes after Sengupta was pulled from the water, despite her seeing multiple ambulances located across the course. During that time, she said rescuers attempted to resuscitate Sengupta.


This is what I was discussing with many of those who came to the defense of Tough Mudder, commenting that all risk can’t be removed.  But I am not thinking that all risk can be removed.  I am, however, certain that a lot of it can be controlled better with the reasonable application of protocols.  Having to be talked into action by participants – I think all can agree – is not a reasonable action plan.

How this could have gone (without any additional expense to Tough Mudder)

  • Event:   A guard notices or is told someone is still underwater.
  • Step 1: An alarm (whistle, bullhorn, you pick it) is sounded – all jumping stops.
  • Step 2:  Standby ambulance dispatched
  • Step 3: Standby divers (two at least please) simultaneously enter the water and sweep the bottom while other guards prep spinal immobilization equipment for water extraction.

An emergency action plan just that simple would have had Sengupta out of the water in under a minute from the first report.    This is just one of many cost-neutral (not that spending more money on safety is out of order) protocols that could be put in place that would be transparent to the participant’s experience and dramatically increase the safety posture of the events.

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By | 2017-05-18T15:29:49+00:00 April 25th, 2013|Opinion, Risk, Water Safety|11 Comments

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  • Bob Pratt

    In my experience, time estimation, even by seasoned professionals is skewed. For untrained bystanders time is nearly impossible to estimate. We know that one of the biggest problems with lifeguards is denial or disbelief that a problem exists. At the mere hint of a missing person the swimming area should be cleared and a search begun.
    Most dive rescue protocols require a team of at least three. Lifeguards can be used in a subsurface search depending on training, experience and depth of the water.
    Hopefully all OCR’s can learn from this tragedy and create or update their emergency action plans.
    It’s also hoped that participants will make a serious evaluation of their preparedness for attempting events like this. Safety is a shared responsibility between the participants and the event coordinators.

  • I agree – a minute feels like three when things get hectic.

  • Dan Gemp

    Bob, per your comment, all training & protocol aside: Minutes underwater without air are still minutes underwater without air. No matter the estimations, it took TOO long to get my friend out of that water or he may have had a chance at surviving. The 600+ people at his funeral yesterday agree..and any one of whom would have jumped into frigid water to help him lifeguard or not. I’d imagine many of the Mudder participants themselves would have have done the same were they not instructed to clear the area…He was in sound physical and mental condition and had trained for the event.

  • Bob Pratt

    I’m very sorry for your loss. My comments about time distortion relate to the divers reaction. Divers are the last resort. The big question is how did he get underwater unnoticed.
    I have worked OCR’s, triathlons and open water swims and one of the hardest decisions is not allowing bystanders to attempt a rescue. While this seems unreasonable to the lay person it is critical not to increase the likelihood of a second tragedy.

    In my experience the rescue incidents fall into two categories: first is the person with no/ VERY poor swimming ability that chooses to jump in and rely on the lifeguards to save them. The second are people who have an unforeseen factor complicate the swim: a leg cramp, a ‘gasp reflex’, having another participant jump on them, or a medical emergency are all examples of this. Hypothermia is another factor that exacerbate any of the above.
    As I stated above: safety is a shared responsibility between the participants and the event coordinators.
    Hopefully we can learn from this tragedy and make all events safer.

  • Such a tragic event. These articles shed important light and hopefully will change future protocols/challenges at the races. Dan, I’m so sorry for you and his family and friends.

  • Pingback: A request for videos and images from Tough Mudder Mid-Atlantic 2013 – Avishek Sengupta()

  • Kristy

    Someone should have already had on scuba gear. It is obvious with the muddy water that someone would not be found just by swimming under to search and look. It is also obvious that there are too many people in the water compared to the number of “rescuers.” Shouldn’t the “rescuers” have also noticed if someone did not emerge……especially before letting the next person jump.

  • Yes to all of that, I think.

  • Kirk Ney

    I am working on an Awareness and Operations Level Surface Water Rescue program for my department and came across your article. It is sad to loose anyone, especially when controls could have been in place mitigate this emergency. Having a plan is key and holding your employees accountable for your actions or lack there of is paramount for a required response to be successful. For their staff not to act immediate is unforgivable and my only hope is that the family seeks some sort of monetary compensation. I know the waiver that is signed is extensive, but if there is way, lawyers will find it. That is the only way is seems for change to take place……Kirk

  • Barrett

    Some more information has come to light from video of the event. The diver didn’t hit the water until 2:30 minutes after Sengupta jumped, despite his teammate indicating he didn’t come up only 15 seconds after. He then handed his mask off to a lifeguard for cleaning, and didn’t dive until 4 minutes after. While generally in an emergency a few seconds can seem like ages, in this case, it was actually nearly 5.

  • Bob Pratt

    I have not seen the video however I have seen reports in the media. Without casting judgement on this case. As a general rule: when a person is lost and possible in a pool or lake SOP should not allow anyone else enter and lifeguards should immediately enter the water and begin a search to the depth they are capable while the dive team prepares for a bottom search.
    This should occur within seconds with all available guards.

    Another exacerbating factor here is water quality. In muddy water there is no ability to remove the particulate from deep within the lungs or even the airway. This will negatively affect gas exchange and the muddier the water the worse it will be.

    Again I’m very sorry for everyone affected by this event and hope that we can learn from it and prevent further tragedies.