Is 'Tough Mudder' too Tough? The Death of Avishek Sengupta

8:44 AM, May 31, 2013   |    comments
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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- One month ago, a 28-year-old man from Ellicott City drowned while competing in a Tough Mudder extreme endurance event in West Virginia.  It was the first and only death in the company's three-year history.  But many people are now wondering if Tough Mudder is too tough.  

WUSA9 obtained video evidence from the Berkeley County Sheriff's Department, taken by a Tough Mudder participant, showing people screaming for Avishek Sengupta moments after he jumped off one of the most difficult obstacles on the course.  The "Walk the Plank" obstacle is a fifteen-foot jump into freezing, muddy water.  According to Tough Mudder's website, "Marines at the top of the platform will chew you out, or worse, push you into the freezing depths below."

"The best word to describe the scene at the obstacle would be chaotic," said Nick Sayers, a Tough Mudder participant who says he was right behind Sengupta on the obstacle.  "There was no one there to tell you when it was safe to jump without hitting another person below."

"In my opinion, there was definitely a potential for people to hit one another," said Antoinette Divittorio who was watching from the ground. 

In fact, that had already happened at a Tough Mudder event in Austin on the same day and at the same obstacle.  Robert Mann told investigators that he was "struck on the top of his shoulders by another participant and plunged deeper into the water."  He suffered momentary paralysis and feared he would drown until another participant grabbed him by the arm and brought him to safety.

In West Virginia, a photographer hired by Tough Mudder told investigators there was "significant confusion" and "no set protocol" among the safety officials at the obstacle.  In fact, he'd counted over twenty water rescues before it was Sengupta's turn.  

His teammates watched Sengupta jump in, but they never saw him surface.  They soon begin screaming for the rescue diver to jump in and save him.

"Go, go, go, go. Down, down, down, down.  Jesus Christ dude!" screams Brett Brocki, the Tough Mudder participant filming with his GoPro camera.  

The diver wasn't wearing his mask, fins, or tank at the time of the incident, according to several witnesses cited in the police report.  One witness said he "displayed zero sense of urgency" and "even cleaned his flippers before he put them on."

"I think at that point it went from realizing someone might be in trouble to if they don't find this person very soon, they're going to be dead," said Sayers.
Two of Avi's teammates jump in the water to start their own search, but the diver kicked them out.  In Brocki's video you can hear the diver scream, "I don't need anybody else in the water.  I'm a rescue diver!  Back off."

"It was at least 4 - 5 minutes before he went under," said Sayers.  "I remember looking at the diver and seeing a look of panic on his face."

The diver later told the Berkeley County Sheriff investigators that he estimated Sengupta was underwater for 8-10 minutes before he finally found him.

"They're praying right now.  They're praying.  They're trying to revive him," said Brocki as Sengupta's body was pulled out of the water.   

"That's when a woman on his team screamed.  Then they started doing mouth to mouth and CPR," said Divittorio.

Sengupta died in the hospital.  The Medical Examiner ruled the death an accidental drowning, and the Berkely County Sheriff's Department closed the case.  But the people who watched it happen are having a hard time letting it go.

"I personally would never do one again, both as a matter of principal and safety," said Sayers.

"My experience of the event was that there was potential for it to be prevented had the crew reacted quicker than they did," said Divittorio.  

Tough Mudder declined to comment on-camera for this story.   However, Ashley Pinakiewicz, Tough Mudder's Director of Marketing and Communication, agreed to be interviewed over the phone.  When asked why it took so long for the diver to get in the water, Pinakiewicz replied:

"I can't speculate as to the amount of time that passed at that particular incident.  All I can say is that we're confident that our emergency personnel and the safety measures that we had in place were followed."

Pinakiewicz said Tough Mudder had 75 certified rescue personnel working the April 20th event in Gerrardstown, West Virginia.  But they also had 11,000 participants.  That's one rescuer for every 147 people running through the obstacles.  Mario Vittone, a retired Coast Guard rescue swimmer and instructor, says that's nowhere near enough.

"It's just hard to manage that many people in the water at the same time," said Vittone.  "The Walk the Plank obstacle is perfectly set up for drowning."  

When asked if Tough Mudder's safety protocols worked the day that Sengupta was killed, Pinakiewicz replied:

"We let the police take the lead on that and the police ruled that it was an accident and that all safety protocols that we had in place were properly executed."

Pinakiewicz says they've only made "minor tweaks" to the Walk the Plank obstacle after the accident, and the company is continuing to hold events all over the world.  

Sengupta's family and his teammates declined to comment for this story.  So far, they have not filed a lawsuit.  Sengupta did sign a waiver saying he was aware of the risks, included death.  

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