In the spirit of my last post speculating on species such as the white sturgeon as the source of lake monster sightings, here's another one along the same looks-supernatural-but-isn't vein. Two weeks ago a story hit the news that 21 people had suffered burns on their feet after attending one of Anthony Robbins' famous fire walks. The media treated the story as proof that fire walking is dangerous, but in fact it is far less so than one would think. To keep the story in perspective, six thousand people participated in this particular firewalk. That means your chance of getting burned at such an event is only .35 percent, or one person in about 287. The initial story reported "second and third degree burns," but in fact that turned out to be an exaggeration on the part of the original reporter on the scene. Some of the 21 burned participants developed blisters, which marks a burn as second degree, but that was about the extent of it.
It appears the debacle started with a report in a local paper, the San Jose Mercury News, which stated that 21 participants suffered second- or third-degree burns at the event and quoted a young college student who was passing by at 11 p.m. at night and was shocked by the sight of 6,000 people chanting, yelling, and firewalking. He claimed it was a "horrific" scene and he heard "wails of pain, screams of agony."
Those who participated said the young man must not have realized that seminar participants are encouraged to yell and scream to psyche themselves up and they were not all screaming in physical pain. The article in the San Jose Mercury News was taken at face value, and like a bad case of telephone gossip, repeated and embellished across various media outlets around the world with even more severe and shocking titles to grab people's attention. Fox News took the liberty of stretching the truth farther by reporting a "hot coal catastrophe," stating that people had been hospitalized with second- and third-degree burns, which then became quickly duplicated by others in the media. According to the medical professionals on site, while several participants received minor burns and blistering and received medical attention on site or afterward, these exaggerated reports apparently became the basis of a story then told around the world.