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Dozens Injured by Hot Coals at Company Event in Zurich


Walking barefoot across hot coals, an ancient religious ritual popularized in recent times as a company team-building exercise, has once more bonded a bunch of peers through the shared suffering of burned feet.

In the newest case of the stunt going improper, 25 employees of a Swiss ad agency were injured Tuesday evening while walking over hot coals in Zurich, officials said. Ten ambulances, two emergency medical teams and law enforcement officials from multiple agencies were deployed to assist, based on the Zurich police. Thirteen people were briefly hospitalized.

“We very much regret the incident and we’re doing every thing we will to be certain that our employees recuperate again quickly,” Michi Frank, the chief executive of the corporate, Golbach, said in a news release. The corporate declined to supply more details of the event.

The sense that walking across burning coals requires a special inner state has motivated its transformation from a mystical spiritual tradition right into a capitalist self-improvement project. The practice appears to have emerged individually hundreds of years ago as a spiritual tradition in various places across the word.

In Greece, the tradition involves singing, dancing and fire-walking commemorates the rescue of icons from a burning church. Seemingly unrelated traditions also exist in Bali, Fiji, India and Japan.

Travel journalists have popularized it, sometimes in mystical terms. “The key is concentration,” The Latest York Times reported in 1973 from a fireplace walk at a temple above Kyoto. “Either mind, body and environment are perfectly in harmony and all sequences of cause and effect turn out to be simultaneous, or they usually are not, and nothing will go right.”

Within the years since, it has turn out to be a trope in movies and on television, notably because the signature group activity at seminars led by Tony Robbins, the life coach and motivational speaker.

“Now let me show you the way to walk on fire,” Mr. Robbins likes to announce. He organizes long lines of individuals to walk across a brief row of burning coals while leading participants in a bloodcurdling call and response of “Say yes!” and “Yes!”

“The aim of the hearth walk,” he explained at a 2017 event, “is just an incredible metaphor for taking belongings you once thought were difficult or unimaginable and showing how quickly you’ll be able to change.”

Sometimes the metaphor gets a little bit too real. Dozens of attendees who walked on coals at Robbins seminars in 2012 and 2016 were injured, with some hospitalized with third-degree burns.

“It’s all the time the goal to don’t have any guests with any discomfort afterward but it surely’s not unusual to have fewer than 1 percent of participants experience ‘hot spots,’ which is analogous to a sunburn which might be treated with aloe,” a spokeswoman for Mr. Robbins told The Washington Post after the 2016 episode.

Popular culture has sometimes mocked the emancipatory potential of walking on fire. In a 2007 episode of the NBC sitcom “The Office,” Dwight Schrute attempts to blackmail his boss, Michael Scott, by not crossing hot coals at a company retreat, but as a substitute remain torturously standing on them until he’s granted a promotion. In “Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls” (1995), Jim Carrey’s character crosses the coals only by flinging another person atop them and stepping on him.

But other depictions have touted the potential for spiritual transformation, including the primary season finale of the CBS reality show “Survivor” in 2000. Along the best way, reports of injuries have risen. In 2001, a dozen Burger King employees were hurt at a company retreat in Key Largo that featured walking on hot coals.

Was this a spiritual failing? Unlikely. With proper instruction and preparation, experts say, walking across hot coals will not be as dangerous because it looks.

“For the overwhelming majority of individuals, possibly a blister the scale of your little fingernail is the worst thing that may occur to you,” a physicist, David Willey, said in a phone interview on Thursday. Mr. Willey, who taught for years on the University of Pittsburgh, once shared the world record for the longest distance walked on hot coals.

The guarantees made by corporate retreat organizers are steadily unjustified, Mr. Willey said.

“They’re telling you that it’s all in your mind, and this will provide you with powers that can proceed,” he said. “It’s not in your mind. Anybody can do it. And I don’t think the arrogance you get from it’s necessarily going to last that long.”

Mr. Willey said that coals at 1,000 degrees are secure to walk on for 20 feet or more, adding that he walked on coals at that temperature for 495 feet without getting a blister.

On his website, he writes that at a brisk walk your bare foot comes into contact with coals for just around a second, which will not be enough time for warmth to be transmitted painfully from coals to the human flesh. Each the coals and skin have vastly lower thermal conductivity than, for example, metal, he said.

But mistakes can result in injuries. These include curling your toes and trapping a coal between them; walking on coals which might be too hot; selecting the improper form of wood, since some get hotter than others; and performing a fireplace walk on a beach, where your feet might sink into sand, Mr. Willey said.

The organizer of the event in Zurich, Thomy Widmer, said in an interview with the Swiss news outlet Blick that he had warned participants to not “stroll run or hop across” the hearth, but to walk across it in a gradual, quick “military step”-like clip. Mr. Widmer said he felt sorry for anyone who got hurt but denied that he had responsibility for the accident. “It might have been an incredible event,” he said.

Emma Bubola and Derrick Bryson Taylor contributed reporting from London. Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin.

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