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10 Record-breaking Attempts That Went Way Wrong
Some world records require little practice, such as the record for the greatest number of people brushing their teeth all at once (26,382 people). Other records require little or no money such as the man with record-long ear hair (7 in or 18 cm). Or even require common sense (i.e. the man who received the record for the hardest kick to the groin). But they’re the exceptions. Most records require plenty of practice time or money or both. And when their attempt fails, it’s all the more tragic. Some even lose far more than time and money. Here are 10 attempts – some of which still set a record—that went awry.
10 Longest Car Jump Fail (Tignes, France, 2014)
After winning his fourth world title in freeriding, Guerlain Chicherit, hung up his skis to try his hand at rally and rallycross driving. After winning the French Rally Cup and the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup, Chicherit tried stunt driving, performing the world’s first unassisted backflip in a car in 2013. But he wasn’t done. “I like this feeling—to play with gravity,” he said. “I think I need this like someone needs to smoke, someone needs to drink or need drugs; I need to have my adrenalin.” The next year he took a shot at breaking Tanner Foust’s’s 2011 record for longest ramp jump in a 4-wheeled vehicle (332 ft. or 101 m).
In March, 2014, Chicherit and his team calculated 15 different variables to launch a specially modified BMW Mini – the same Mini he used for his backflip—from a steel ramp, across a 360 ft (110 m) gap to a concrete landing. It still was not enough. Speeding down a snowy mountain, Chicherit’s Mini reached 99 mph (160 kmh) just as it hit the ramp. Chicherit said afterward he knew he was in trouble when he heard the back of the Mini scrape the ramp as it launched. At mid-flight, the Mini’s hood started to dip until it hit the landing nose first, sending the car cartwheeling. Miraculously, he was only slightly injured and stayed in the hospital one night for observation. Even before he reached the hospital he was planning to repair the Mini and jump again. To date, he has yet to do so.
9 Bird vs. Dominoes (Leeuwarden, Holland, 2005)
In October 2005, volunteers and crew for the reality TV production company Endemol began setting up 4,155,156 dominoes in a Leeuwarden exhibition hall in preparation for a record-breaking attempt for the most dominoes toppled. If you watch the videos from Domino Day 2005, you can see how elaborate the construction of the domino fall was and how much work it must of required.
Weeks into the building project, the exhibition hall had an unexpected and unwelcome visitor: a house sparrow. The little guy landed on a domino, which, inevitably, toppled its neighbors. Some 23,000 of its neighbors. When the crew failed to catch the winged saboteur, they called animal control. Eventually the officer cornered the sparrow and killed it with an air gun as it reportedly cowered against a wall. The gunman apparently neglected to do his research however, as that species of sparrow was on Netherland’s endangered species list.
Because of herbicides and pesticides which kill the creatures sparrows eat, Europe had seen a decline in the sparrow population over the previous century. The killing of the “Domino Sparrow” sparked a world-wide outcry and officials of the Dutch providence of Friesland investigated. The production crew began to receive death threats and a Dutch radio DJ offered $3,500 to anyone who’d topple even more dominoes before the November 18 live broadcast. A song called “The Domino Sparrow” was recorded and a website was created for people to post tributes to the deceased bird. More than 5,000 people signed its condolence register.
The carcass of the dead sparrow was stuffed and ultimately found its way into the Rotterdam Natural History Museum where it was displayed, mounted on a box of dominoes. Its sacrifice was for naught as the 4 million dominoes still fell, a record that lasted a whopping whole year when 4.3 million were toppled in Beijing. But the sparrow’s demise wasn’t the only thing that marred the Leeuwarden’s Domino Day. Guinness disqualified 153,000 dominoes from the record when a member of the crew inadvertently knocked that many dominoes down. There’s no word on whether the poor crewmember was cornered and shot with an air gun.
8 Zip Lining on a Ponytail (West Bengal, India, 2013)
A far darker record attempt happened over the Teesta River in 2013. Sailendra Nath Roy was a law enforcement officer who made a career of performing stunts with his ponytail. In 2007, Roy tied his ponytail to a rope strung between two buildings and “flew” from one high rise to the other. In 2011, he tied his ponytail to the trolley of a 271 foot (82.5 m) zip line, setting a world record. A year later he pulled a train engine and four coaches—together weighing 88,000 pounds (40 tonnes)—with his ponytail. In West Bengal, Roy tried to break his own record by stringing a 600-foot (183 m) zip line 70 feet (21 m) above the Teesta River.
Unfortunately, Roy had neglected to inform Guinness of his world record attempt. Nor did he inform the police or arrange for the presence of medical professionals for his attempt. And while he wore a life vest in the event he ended up in the river, he apparently did not provide himself with a knife. All of which conspired against him when his hair got tangled in the wheels of the trolley at the mid-point of his zip line journey.
Roy tried to pull himself down the rest of zip line by hand, but the trolley wheels refused to roll forward or backward. Spectators were watching him from the nearby Coronation Bridge and he yelled to them for help, but none – including his family—could make out what he was saying. In fact, a few of them began clapping, thinking his struggles were part of the show. Roy struggled for 30 minutes before he suddenly went limp, the victim of a massive heart attack. It was another 15 minutes before he was finally pulled onto the bridge and CPR could be performed. He was by then gone. His wife had begged him to stop performing dangerous stunts and he responded that this stunt would be his last.
7 Tender-Footed Firewalkers (Dunedin, New Zealand, 2004)
In July of 2004, a fundraiser was held to raise money to provide defibrillators to the Order of St. John, a New Zealand ambulance service. The main event was a world record attempt for the greatest number of people fire walking and Guinness was on hand to make sure it was done safely, that the fire pit was 3.5 meters (11.5 ft.) in length, and the participants were at least 14 years of age. Guinness officially certified that 341 people walked the fire pit setting a new record, but about 150 spectators also traversed the fire pit, most receiving little or no instruction. By the time it was over, 28 people had burns on their feet.
Dr. John Campbell, a physicist for the University of Canterbury, organized the fire walk and said that ideally a participant should take 4 steps across the fire pit, each step lasting just one second. To do this, the fire pit should be 3 meters (10 ft) long, but Guinness insisted it be 3.5 meters. Campbell claimed it did not require hypnosis or meditation to fire walk. As long as the fire pit had the correct charcoal and no metal within it, nothing more than minor blisters should result. About 1 in 10 firewalkers will have blisters, especially those with thinner skin around the arches of their feet and under their toes. The best fire walkers were those who regularly walked barefoot or weight lifted.
Campbell added that any burns should be minor and rarely required hospitalization. Unfortunately, 11 people at the Dunedin event had to be taken to the hospital, transported by the Order of St. John. To handle the extra runs, the ambulance service had to pay for more saline and burn dressings. Together with gas, it cost St. John well over $1,000 ($913 American dollars). And the fundraiser netted – you guessed it – under $1,000.
6 A Family Shattered (Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand, 2015)
In November of 2010, Chilean cyclist Juan Francisco Guillermo embarked on a five-year odyssey to set a world record for biking on five continents in five years for a total of 250,000 km (155,000 miles). By February 2015, Guillermo was in Thailand just months away from completing his round-the-world excursion in Australia. By then, according to a sign he displayed at stops, he had traversed 4 continents, had 793 flat tires, and biked 140,000 km (87,000 miles). He had also met his wife, Ng Poh Leng, during his sojourn, married her and by then had a two-year-old toddler, Lucas.
All three members of the family spent a week at the Khon Kaen monastary in northeast Thailand and, as they were leaving, Juan told his wife that he loved the temple so much, he wanted his cremation rite held there. On the road from Khon Kaen to Nakhon Ratchasima, Juan was in the lead towing a baby trailer with Ng and Lucas on a two wheeler behind him. A speeding pickup truck approached them from behind, the driver claiming he never saw either bike. The pickup struck Ng and Lucas first, then Juan, killing him instantly. Juan’s bride and baby sustained minor injuries. The accident occurred in the midst of two Thai campaigns, one to improve its terrible reputation for traffic fatalities, the other to promote bicycling throughout the country.
5 Plate Glass Break (Las Vegas, Nevada, 2013)
Jesus “Half Animal” Villa is no stranger to Guinness World Records. The former Cirque du Soleil acrobat held several: for a double backflip on spring-loaded stilts; for the most consecutive back flips (19) on stilts in under a minute (actually it was 21 seconds); the most consecutive 90 degree pushups (13 reps); and earned two records (longest front flip over a car on stilts and the most number of front flips—18—on stilts) all in one day. On December 12, 2012, he earned a sixth world record when he traveled the greatest distance (37 miles or 62 km) on stilts in a 24-hour period. But the coolest thing was that his girlfriend, the superstar Pamela Sue Anderson, was on hand to root for him at many of the attempts.
For his seventh world record – the fastest time jumping through 10 panes of tempered glass – Villa signed a contract with truTV to film his attempt for the show “Guinness Records Gone Wild.” Villa claimed that the show’s crew altered his equipment before his attempt and, as result, he never made it through even one pane of glass. As he ran up to the first window, he jumped on a trampoline, throwing him hard against the glass, breaking it as well as his neck.
According to his posts on his Fundrazr page, 50% of his neck and spine had to be reconstructed afterward with titanium. Even after years of rehab and physical therapy, he says his body will not be the same, able to perform its previous impressive feats. What is discouraging is that on-line trolls have peppered his Fundrazr page with disparaging, ugly posts. Whatever the cause of a person’s disability, they are still disabled and shouldn’t suffer still more at the hands of people who’ve forgotten the value of compassion.
4 Paralympic Rowing Champ Drowns (Pacific Ocean, 2020)
One woman whose life was the epitome of overcoming adversity and disability was Angela Madsen. She was a natural athlete, playing in both high school basketball and volleyball. In her junior year she became pregnant with her daughter Jennifer, the father out of the picture. But when Madsen applied to Ohio State, hoping for a volleyball scholarship, she was turned down because, as she states in her memoir, they thought “I would not be able to keep up with the practice schedule, be a full-time student, and be a single parent.” She joined the marines and played basketball for the women’s All-Marine Corps squad. While practicing one day, she ruptured two discs and damaged her sciatic nerve. Discharged from the Marines, she, at 21, found herself working as a mechanic despite excruciating pain in her back and legs. Finally in 1993, she had back surgery to fuse some of her vertebrae at a VA hospital, but the surgeons worked on the wrong ones, permanently paralyzing her from the waist down.
Because of a 1950 statute baring her from suing the VA, she was forced to live on tiny disability checks. And her partner began stealing them and not using them to pay their rent. Madsen came home one day, evicted, the apartment cleaned out, her partner, her savings, her 401(k) and her car gone. Jennifer, too, was gone, already into drugs and alcohol and running away from home. Then Madsen’s home followed suit and she became a homeless paraplegic on the streets. Her life changed the day her wheelchair wheels jammed, dumping her on railroad tracks, a train barreling down on her. Two people hauled her off the tracks just in time. She vowed to tuck her anger away, and focus on what life she had left.
She signed up for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games where she won five gold medals in swimming, wheelchair slalom and billiards. Then she discovered rowing, entering the World Rowing Championship in 2002, winning a silver medal. For the next four years, her medals were gold. Then she turned to large bodies of water, rowing parts of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. In 2013, Madsen attempted to row solo the 2,500 miles (4,023 km) from California to Hawaii. Unfortunately she was caught in a storm and had to be rescued. The next year she took a rowing partner and they completed the run in 60 days, some days rowing 70 miles.
Finally in April 2020, Madsen was ready to try the run again solo, setting a record as the first paraplegic rower, the first openly gay athlete, and the oldest woman to row from Marina del Rey to Honolulu. In late June, Madsen was halfway there when she was warned of an impending cyclone. Madsen decided to deploy a parachute anchor to stabilize her 20-foot fiberglass boat. But the anchor needed to be repaired and on the morning of June 21, Madsen, according to her wife Deb, climbed out, tethered to the boat. Deb speculates that Madsen, unable to feel anything below her waist, may have stayed too long in the 72-degree water, developing hypothermia or having a heart attack, and drowning. Madsen was found dead, floating and still tethered to her boat.
3 Tug-of-War Deaths (Frankfurt, Germany, 1995)
Almost all of us have at some point played tug-of-war, a staple of company picnics and kid gatherings all over the world. It may therefore come as a surprise that several people have been maimed and even killed over the years playing this seemingly innocuous game. According to the U.S. Tug of War Association, injuries and deaths are almost always due to using ropes not meant to handle the tremendous tension (or elastic recoil) a bout between two teams can put on it. The elastic recoil builds as the teams pulls and will snap even thick ropes if they’re made from improper material such as nylon. Worse, elastic polymers such as nylon will recoil like a giant rubber band, reaching speeds sufficient to sever appendages.
For instance in October 1997, 1600 people in Taiwan held a tug-of-war match, exerting 180,000 pounds of force on a 2 inch nylon rope meant to handle only 57,000 pounds. The rope snapped severing the left arm of two men and injuring 40 others. Among those hurt was a person who suffered a spinal cord injured and a ruptured liver and spleen. In 2007, two high school boys had their hands amputated when a rope recoiled. A man in Nova Scotia had his hand crushed and lost 4 fingers, In Harrisonburg, Pennsylvania, five middle schoolers had their fingertips severed and another lost his thumb.
The worst tug-of-war disaster ever happened in 1995 in Frankfurt, Germany. Some 650 boy scouts tried to set a world record and the nylon rope – just the thickness of a thumb – snapped. The rope whipped back with such force, it killed a nine-year-old. Another boy was crushed to death when those in front fell atop him. In all, 102 were seriously injured.
2 The Truck Driver at the Edge of Space (Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 1966)
It may be surprising, but the first head of a civilian space program was not Elon Musk, but a New Jersey truck driver with no connection to NASA, no college education and no formal training in aeronautics. Nick Piantanida, according to his brother Vern, was a driven man, always inventing new challenges for himself, whether it was breaking free throw records, climbing Venezuela’s Devil’s Mountain, or jumping off the garage with a homemade parachute. In 1963, Piantanida was an exotic pet store owner when he discovered skydiving. Soon after, he heard about two world records: the longest free-fall parachute jump (80,340 ft. or 15 miles) set by a Soviet Air Force colonel; the highest parachute jump (19 miles or 31 km) set by a USAF pilot. Piantanida set his sights on both records, believing both records should belong to an American. This was, after all, at the height of the cold war space race between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.
Piantanida got a job as a long-distance truck driver to free up time on the weekends. He began to read everything he could about balloons and high altitude skydiving. He enlisted experts such as Paul Edward Yost, inventor of the modern hot air balloon and pioneer of high altitude ballooning, and Jacques-André Istel, considered the “father of American skydiving.” He garnered sponsors such as New Jersey Senator Pete Williams to open doors. Piantanida approached Raven Industries, fabricators of high altitude balloons, to build a gondola not much larger than an outhouse. He convinced the David Clark Company to loan him a customized pressure-suit, much as they did for NASA.
After two short years, Piantanida was ready. The plan was to ride a balloon to 120,000 ft (36,500 m or nearly 23 miles), the edge of space, then jump out of his gondola and free-fall for 21 miles until the air was thick enough to deploy his parachute. He made his first attempt in October, 1965, over St. Paul, Minnesota, but his Strato Jump I only made it to 16,000 feet (4.900 m) before wind shear tore open his balloon and he had to bail out, parachuting into a city dump. He would have set the world record on his second attempt the next February, but when he tried to disconnect his oxygen supply from the gondola so he could jump, the valve jammed. It was either hold his breath for the 23 mile fall, or return to earth in his gondola.
His third attempt in May, 1966, went off without a hitch until his balloon reached 57,000 ft. (17,000 m) and the ground crew heard a “whoosh” and a cry for help over the radio. They remotely cut the gondola from the balloon and deployed a parachute and 26 minutes later they reached Piantanida’s gondola to find him barely conscious. He slipped into a coma before he reached the hospital and never regained consciousness before his death four months later. Piantanida often felt discomfort under the pressure in his suit and he’d open his visor to relieve the pressure. This is fine at ground level, but in a near vacuum, immediate decompression would form emboli and painful tissue damage and it’s speculated that when Piantanida lifted his visor, he may not have been unable to reclose it. For at least 4 to 5 minutes he was without oxygen.
1 Great Balloon Catastrophe (Cleveland, Ohio, 1986)
If any world record could be considered harmless, the least likely to endanger anyone, it would be a record for releasing balloons. Unfortunately, even balloons – given enough of them –could be weapons of mass destruction. Consider a fundraising event for United Way called “Balloonfest ’86,” an event Cleveland, Ohio, would long remember as a disaster. Cleveland was trying to rebrand its image after a horrible decade of setbacks. During the 1970’s, Cleveland’s steel industries declined, the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie were declared dead or dying, and rampant mafia violence gave the city the moniker “Bomb City USA.” A quarter of Cleveland’s population just packed up and left.
When the 1980’s rolled around, plans were made to develop the lake front and efforts began to bring the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to Cleveland. The city was also home to plenty of professional sport teams, but even they could tarnish its image. In 1980, the owner of the short-lived Cleveland Competitors, member of the even shorter-lived North American Softball League, decided to drum up publicity by attempting to recreate the 1938 record-breaking catch of a baseball dropped from the city’s tallest building: the Terminal Tower. It was calculated that a baseball falling from the 52-story, 708-foot tower would reach 138 mph. The average MLB pitch is around 90 to 92 mph. But the organizers failed to keep the foot of the building cordoned off and free of spectators and the first three balls dropped dented a car, bruised a spectator’s shoulder and broke the wrist of another. Eventually a ball was caught, but no one would remember the success, instead focusing on the injuries and the lack of planning. It was a lesson the organizers of Balloonfest ’86 should have heeded.
It started the previous year when Disneyland celebrated its 30th anniversary by setting the world record by releasing 1.2 million balloons all at once. Cleveland decided to give it a try. On the night of September 26 and morning of the 27, 1986, some 2,500 people – most of them students – converged on Cleveland’s Public Square which sits at the foot of Terminal Tower. A 3-story structure surrounded the Square with a huge mesh net stretched across it. Under it, volunteers filled helium balloons – two for every dollar donated – and simply let them float into the net. The plan was to fill 2 million balloons, but when reports of an approaching storm filtered in, the organizers decided to stop at 1,429,643 balloons. When they were released, they looked like a great cloud of colorful bees, swarming around Terminal Tower. They had set a new record.
The elation didn’t last long. The storm pushed the balloons north toward Lake Erie, the rain forcing them down. Down on highways causing a number of traffic accidents. Arabian horses at a ranch in Geauga County were so spooked by the falling, bursting orbs, they injured themselves. Burke Lakefront Airport had to be closed for 30 minutes while the balloons were cleared from the runway. The incident went international when the balloons sailed clear across Lake Erie, littering Canadian beaches. Worse, two fishermen had the misfortune to be out on Lake Erie when the storm capsized their boat. The Coast Guard had trouble finding the fishermen floating among the multi-colored latex. “It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” explained a rescuer. “You’re looking for more or less a head or an orange life jacket, and here you have a couple hundred thousand orange balloons. It’s just hard to decipher which is which.” They were forced to give up the search and the bodies of the two men washed ashore two weeks later.
Before the media fallout, before the lawsuits rolled in, a local DJ trumpeted: “There is no ‘mistake on the lake’ anymore!” The organizer was equally exuberant: “Cleveland, it’s your time…. It’s no longer the butt of jokes.” How about this joke? There’s an old saw that says “It’s all fun and games as long as it’s not done in the streets and it doesn’t scare the horses.” Fail.
About The Author: Steve is the best-selling author of “366 Days in Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency” and is a frequent contributor to Listverse.