Drowning to Death
Typically, when a victim realizes that they cannot keep their head above water they tend to panic, leading to the classic “surface struggle”. They gasp for air at the surface and hold their breath as they bob beneath. Struggling to breathe, they can’t call for help. Their bodies are upright, arms weakly grasping, as if trying to climb a non-existent ladder from the sea. Studies with New York lifeguards in the 1950s and 1960s found that this stage lasts just 20 to 60 seconds.
When victims eventually submerge, they hold their breath for as long as possible, typically 30 to 90 seconds. After that, they inhale some water, splutter, cough and inhale more. Water in the lungs blocks gas exchange in delicate tissues, while inhaling water also triggers the airway to seal shut – a reflex called a laryngospasm. “There is a feeling of tearing and a burning sensation in the chest as water goes down into the airway. Then that sort of slips into a feeling of calmness and tranquility,” describing reports from survivors.
That calmness represents the beginnings of the loss of consciousness from oxygen deprivation, which eventually results in the heart stopping and brain death.
Burning to Death
Long the fate of witches and heretics, burning to death is torture. Hot smoke and flames singe eyebrows and hair and burn the throat and airways, making it hard to breathe. Burns inflict immediate and intense pain through stimulation of the nociceptors – the pain nerves in the skin. To make matters worse, burns also trigger a rapid inflammatory response, which boosts sensitivity to pain in the injured tissues and surrounding areas.
Depending on the size of the fire and how close you are to it, concentrations of carbon monoxide could start to cause headache and drowsiness in minutes, eventually leading to unconsciousness. According to the US National Fire Protection Association, 40 per cent of the victims of fatal home fires are knocked out by fumes before they can even wake up.
It took the axeman three attempts to sever the head of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587. He had to finish the job with a knife.
Decades earlier in 1541, Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury, was executed at the Tower of London. She was dragged to the block, but refused to lay her head down. The inexperienced axe man made a gash in her shoulder rather than her neck. According to some reports, she leapt from the block and was chased by the executioner, who struck 11 times before she died.
Bleeding to Death
People can bleed to death in seconds if the aorta, the major blood vessel leading from the heart, is completely severed, for example, after a severe fall or car accident.
Death could creep up much more slowly if a smaller vein or artery is nicked – even taking hours. Such victims would experience several stages of haemorrhagic shock. The average adult has 5 litres of blood. Losses of around 750 millilitres generally cause few symptoms. Anyone losing 1.5 litres – either through an external wound or internal bleeding – feels weak, thirsty and anxious, and would be breathing fast. By 2 liters, people experience dizziness, confusion and then eventual unconsciousness.
Falling to Death
A high fall is certainly among the speediest ways to die: terminal velocity (no pun intended) is about 200 kilometers per hour, achieved from a height of about 145 meters or more. A study of deadly falls in Hamburg, Germany, found that 75 per cent of victims died in the first few seconds or minutes after landing.
The exact cause of death varies, depending on the landing surface and the person’s posture. People are especially unlikely to arrive at the hospital alive if they land on their head – more common for shorter (under 10 meters) and higher (over 25 meters) falls. A 1981 analysis of 100 suicidal jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco – height: 75 meters, velocity on impact with the water: 120 kilometers per hour – found numerous causes of instantaneous death including massive lung bruising, collapsed lungs, exploded hearts or damage to major blood vessels and lungs through broken ribs.
Survivors of great falls often report the sensation of time slowing down. The natural reaction is to struggle to maintain a feet-first landing, resulting in fractures to the leg bones, lower spinal column and life-threatening broken pelvises. The impact travelling up through the body can also burst the aorta and heart chambers. Yet this is probably still the safest way to land, despite the force being concentrated in a small area: the feet and legs form a “crumple zone” which provides some protection to the major internal organs.
Some experienced climbers or skydivers who have survived a fall report feeling focused, alert and driven to ensure they landed in the best way possible: relaxed, legs bent and, where possible, ready to roll.