Oh boy. Here we go again. Tony Robbins, the man James Ray wants so desperately to be, has landed himself in a little hot water of his own. At least 21 people suffered bad burns while attempting one of his firewalks at a seminar in San Jose, California. Most had second and third degree burns. Three went to hospital. The screams of "agony" were described as sounding like people were being "tortured." So, pretty horrible.
To his credit, unlike Ray, Robbins had medical staff on hand in case of emergency. There was also a fire inspector on scene and the proper permitting had been done. And when the medical staff became overwhelmed, the fire inspector was able to call in the fire department for additional support. So no one died. People were treated promptly. No one, to my knowledge, was told it was all "mind over matter," that they were "better than that," or that they were having a "breakthrough," as the blisters formed on their feet. It was treated like the medical emergency that it was. Robbins has been doing these things for thirty years without major incident. So that's all good.
Also, to be fair, Robbins Research International claims that 6,000 people walked the coals Thursday evening. Twenty-one out of 6,000 is practically decimal dust. But I still have to wonder what the point of this little exercise is.
Walking across hot coals on lanes measuring 10 feet long and heated to between 1,200 to 2,000 degrees provides attendees an opportunity to "understand that there is absolutely nothing you can't overcome," according to the motivational speaker's website.
What's the message, then, when you end up in hospital with third degree burns? That you're not so good at overcoming things?
Henry Guasch, who got burned at another event, blames his state of mind.
"Overcoming something like that, it's a breakthrough," he said, adding that he did slow his pace in the middle of the field and got a minor burn.
Guasch and Andrew Brenner, another fire walker, both said that the keys to not getting singed are faith and concentration.
"I did it before, didn't get into the right state and got burned," Brenner said. "I knew I wasn't at my peak state. I didn't take it as serious."
But the success or failure of a firework really comes down to simple physics.
David Willey, a physics instructor at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown in Pennsylvania, has published a text and video on the physics of firewalking and stated that it "does not need a particular state of mind."
"Rather, it is the short time of contact and the low thermal capacity and conductivity of the coals that is important," he wrote. He added that ash that builds up on coals can provide further insulation.
Guash slowed down. He got burned. It's really that simple. Robbins could just as easily tell people that wood is a bad conductor and that if they walk quickly, they'll be fine. But I don't think he could charge as much money or call it a personal empowerment exercise if he did.
In most cases, firewalks are safe, and Robbins took the appropriate precautions to deal with the outliers. But he's selling a placebo as if it were a real drug.
San Jose Fire Department Capt. Reggie Williams, who oversaw much of the emergency response, was reported as saying that they do not recommend firewalks.
"We discourage people from walking over hot coals," Williams said.
That's probably sound.