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The Zenith Tragedy

The Dangers of Hypoxia

 
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From 1873 the French Society for Aerial Navigation organised several high altitude balloon flights. The flights were to have a scientific purpose and it was also hoped to best Glaisher's altitude records. The regular pilot was Théodore Sivel and he was assisted by an engineer named Joseph Crocé-Spinelli. On 23 and 24 March 1875 they made a lengthy flight of 22 hours from Paris to Bordeaux, carrying passengers including the Tissandier brothers, Gaston and Albert, who were later to construct the first electrically powered dirigible. The balloon was named the Zenith.

On 15 April 1875, Sivel, Crocé-Spinelli and Gaston Tissandier again took off in the Zenith for another high altitude flight. Although they were not ill-prepared, the aviators were to find that the air is an unforgiving medium. Sivel and Crocé-Spinelli had considered the problem of oxygen starvation, and taken advice from Dr Paul Bert, the Professor of Physiology at Paris. Bert was the leading authority on hypoxia. They had sat in his decompression apparatus at a simulated 20,000 ft. and observed the "disagreeable effects of decompression and the favourable influence of superoxygenated air.... ." As a result, bags of oxygen-air mixture were carried on the Zenith, to be breathed from intermittently. A hose ran from each bag, through a wash bottle to clean the gas. But, tragically, only Tissandier returned alive. His companions had died of asphyxiation (hypoxia). It was a cruel irony that they should have died within arms reach of apparatus that could have saved them.

Breathing apparatus on board the Zenith

Here is Tissandier's account:

At 23,000 ft. we were standing up in the car [basket]. Sivel, who has given up for a moment, is re-invigorated. Crocé-Spinelli is motionless in front of me ... I felt stupefied and frozen. I wished to put on my fur gloves, but, without being conscious of it, the action of taking them from my pocket necessitated an effort I could no longer make... . I copy, verbatim, the following lines which were written by me, although I have no very distinct remembrance of doing so. They are traced in a hardly legible manner by a hand trembling with cold:

"My hands are frozen. I am all trembling with cold. We are all right. Fog in the horizon, with little rounded cirrus. We are ascending. Crocé pants; he inhales oxygen. Sivel closes his eyes. Crocé also closes his eyes... . Sivel throws out ballast."
These last words are hardly readable. Sivel seized his knife and cut successively three cords, and the three bags emptied themselves and we ascended rapidly. The last remembrance of this ascent which remains clear to me relates to a moment earlier. Crocé-Spinelli was seated, holding in one hand a wash bottle of oxygen gas. His head was slightly inclined and he seemed oppressed. I had still strength to tap the aneroid barometer to facilitate the movement of the needle. Sivel had just raised his hand towards the sky. As for myself, I remained perfectly still, without suspecting that I had, perhaps, already lost the power of moving. About the height of 25,000 ft. the condition of stupefaction which ensues is extraordinary. The mind and the body weaken by degrees, and imperceptibly, without consciousness of it. No suffering is then experienced; on the contrary, an inner joy is felt like an irradiation from the surrounding flood of light. One becomes indifferent. One thinks no more of the perilous position or of danger. One ascends, and is happy to ascend. The vertigo of the upper regions is not an idle word; but, so far as I can judge from my personal impression, vertigo appears at the last moment; it immediately precedes annihilation, sudden, unexpected, and irresistible.

When Sivel cut away the bags of ballast at the height of 24,000 ft., I seem to remember that he was sitting at the bottom of the car, and nearly in the same position as Crocé-Spinelli. For my part, I was in the angle of the car, thanks to which support I was able to hold up; but I soon felt too weak even to turn my head to look at my companions. Soon I wished to take hold of the tube of oxygen, but it was impossible to raise my arm. My mind, nevertheless, was quite clear. I wished to explain, "We are 24,000 ft. high"; but my tongue was, as it were, paralysed. All at once I closed my eyes, and sinking down inert, became insensible. This was about 1-30  p.m. At eight minutes past two I awoke for a moment, and found the balloon rapidly descending. I was able to cut away a bag of ballast to check the speed and write in my notebook the following lines, which I copy:

"We are descending. Temperature 3 degrees. I throw out ballast. Barometer 12.4 inches. We are descending. Sivel and Crocé still in a fainting state at the bottom of the car. Descending very rapidly."
Hardly had I written these lines when a kind of trembling seized me, and I fell back weakened again. There was a violent wind from below, upwards, denoting a very rapid descent. After some minutes I felt myself shaken by the arm, and I recognized Crocé, who had revived. "Throw out ballast," he said to me, "We are descending." But I could hardly open my eyes, and did not see whether Sivel was awake. I called to mind that Crocé unfastened the aspirator, which he then threw overboard, and then he threw out ballast, rugs &c.

All this is an extremely confused remembrance, quickly extinguished, for again I fell back inert, more completely than before, and it seemed to me that I was dying. What happened? It is certain that the balloon, relieved of a great weight of ballast, at once ascended to the higher regions.

At 3-30 p.m. I opened my eyes again. I felt dreadfully giddy and oppressed, but gradually came to myself. The balloon was descending with frightful speed and making great oscillations. I crept along on knees, and I pulled Sivel and Crocé by the arm. "Sivel! Crocé!" I exclaimed, "Wake up!" My two companions were huddled up motionless in the car, covered by their cloaks. I collected all my strength, and endeavoured to raise them up. Sivel's face was black, his eyes dull, and his mouth was open and full of blood. Crocé's eyes were half closed and his mouth was bloody.

To relate what happened afterwards is quite impossible. I felt a frightful wind; we were still 9,700 ft. high. There remained in the car two bags of ballast, which I threw out. I was drawing near the earth. I looked for my knife to cut the small rope which held the anchor, but could not find it. I was like a madman, and continued to call, "Sivel! Sivel!" By good fortune I was able to put my hand upon my knife and detach the anchor at the right moment. The shock on coming to the ground was dreadful. The balloon seemed as if it were being flattened. I thought that it was going to remain where it had fallen, but the wind was high, and it was dragging across fields, the anchor not catching. The bodies of my unfortunate friends were shaken about in the car, and I thought every moment they would be jerked out. At length, however, I seized the valve line, and the gas soon escaped from the balloon, which lodged against a tree. It was then four o'clock. On stepping out, I was seized with a feverish attack, and sank down and for a moment thought I was going to join my friends in the next world; but I came to. I found the bodies of my friends cold and stiff. I had them put under shelter in an adjacent barn. The descent of the Zenith took place in the plains 155 miles from Paris as the crow flies. The greatest height attained in this ascent is estimated at 28,000 ft.

"They ascend and death seizes them, without a struggle, without suffering, as a prey fallen to it on those icy regions where an eternal silence reigns. Yes, our unhappy friends have had this strange privilege, this fatal honour, of being the first to die in the heavens. ..." This was part of Paul Bert's eulogy at the funeral of these two early altitude explorers. The scientific world was greatly shocked by this tragedy, which put an end to high altitude flights for the next 20 years.
 
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