April 21, 2014

Participants tackle fatal "Walk the Plank" challenge at 2013 Mid-Atlantic Tough Mudder.     Photo: Elliott Woods/YouTube

Tough Mudder Sued

Sengupta family claims wrongful death

Almost a year to the day after Avishek Sengupta’s death at the 2013 Mid-Atlantic Tough Mudder, his mother filed suit against the company, which grossed approximately $100 million last year. The suit comes after five months of mediation failed to produce a settlement between the Sengupta estate and the co-defendants, which include Tough Mudder and Airsquid Ventures, whose subsidiary was responsible for aquatic safety at the event.

The wrongful death complaint, filed by the Boston-area firm Gilbert and Renton on Friday in the Circuit Court of Marshall County, West Virginia, charges both Tough Mudder and Airsquid Ventures with gross negligence for their conduct at the “Walk the Plank” obstacle on the day Sengupta drowned. “Walk the Plank” requires participants to plunge from a 15-foot platform into a deep pool of frigid, muddy water, then swim forty feet to a cargo net, where they exit the pool.

According the complaint, Tough Mudder was directly responsible for overcrowding at “Walk the Plank” on the day Sengupta drowned that made it impossible for safety personnel to effectively monitor the pool. But the complaint goes a step further, alleging that Tough Mudder intentionally removed certain safety features in order to improve crowd flow.

“Prior to the Tough Mudder Mid-Atlantic event on April 20,” the complaint reads, “Tough Mudder had been the subject of complaints on social media concerning long waiting times at many of its obstacles... In response to complaints of long wait times at Walk-the-Plank, Tough Mudder took steps to decrease wait times and increase the flow of participants through the Obstacle... Its desire to speed participants through Walk-the-Plank caused Tough Mudder to abandon (or fail to adopt in the first place) critical safety measures.” 

Those measures include more and better-trained safety staff, lanes to divide participants and prevent them from landing on each other, and cautionary signage, all of which, the lawyers contend, had been implemented at earlier events. 

The American Red Cross Lifeguarding Manual has clear protocols for how to respond to overcrowding at aquatic attractions. Essentially, there are two options: ramping up the number of lifeguards, or shutting the attraction down. Faced with obvious overcrowding at “Walk the Plank” on the day Sengupta drowned, safety personnel did neither. 

“Even after witnessing twenty or more rescues in the hours before Avi Sengupta arrived at the Obstacle,” the complaint reads, “none of the Defendants took any measures to reduce the extreme drowning risks.” 

Amphibious Medics—the subsidiary of Airsquid Ventures contracted to manage aquatic safety at “Walk the Plank” on the day Sengupta drowned—comes under fire for staffing the pool with lifeguards who were unable to assist in the search for Sengupta’s body because they wore lifejackets that prevented them from diving. The same lifeguards also challenged Sengupta’s teammates when they pleaded that he was missing underwater, wasting precious moments and clearly violating industry-standard lifeguarding protocol, which demands that any credible report of a drowning trigger an immediate and organized search. 

The complaint also reveals, for the first time, that the scuba diver hired by Amphibious Medics to man “Walk the Plank” on the day Sengupta drowned had expired rescue diver credentials at the time of the incident. Travis Pittman’s tragically lethargic response to the report of a missing person enraged participants around the pool and was thoroughly documented on video.

Pittman is a co-defendant in the suit, along with Peacemaker National Training Center, where the event was held, and General Mills, whose “Wheaties” brand sponsored the “Walk the Plank” obstacle.

Now that the legal fight over Sengupta’s death is out of the closed-door mediation process, a court decision in the case could have important public policy ramifications, especially with regard to liability waivers—what Tough Mudder calls its “Death Waiver.” The Senguptas’ lawyers contend that such waivers are unenforceable because they are obtained by “fraud and misrepresentation” and “without full disclosure” as to the safety of the event, and that they are “one-sided and overly harsh,” among other claims. 

Tough Mudder declined to comment for this story. 

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Keflezighi, this year's Boston Marathon winner, on his way to winning the 2010 New York City Marathon.     Photo: Henny Ray Abrams/Associate Press

Meb Wins Boston Marathon

With a time of 2:08:37, first American winner since 1983

With a time of 2:08:37, Meb Keflezighi became the first American man to win the Boston Marathon since Greg Meyer in 1983. Though Keflezighi led by as much as a minute and a half for much of the race, Kenyan Wilson Chebet narrowed the gap to as little as six seconds with just two miles to go. But the 38-year-old Keflezighi surged over the last mile to hold on for the win and a new personal best over 26.2 miles. It was also Keflezighi's best finish at Boston since his third place in 2006. Ahead of the race, he ran us through the moves required to win—and stuck to them precisely today.

Earlier in the day, Kenyan Rita Jeptoo won the women's race for a second year in a row, setting a new course record of 2:18:57. American Shalane Flanagan pushed a blistering pace for the first half of the race until Jeptoo and a group of four other women surged ahead. Flanagan finished in 2:22:02, a new American record. 

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Tens of millions are expected to leave the grid in New York and California by 2020.     Photo: thomaslenne/Thinkstock

Time to Leave the Grid?

Solar now makes sense

Defecting from the power grid is becoming viable a lot quicker than anyone expected. According to a new report from the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), in many regions solar panel and battery setups are already more cost effective than relying on utility companies. In coming years, ditching the grid might become the norm as solar setups continue to reach parity with conventional power sources.

The concept of parity—the tipping point where generating and storing power on your own is cheaper than using a utility provider—is not a new idea. However, the rapid development and corresponding price drop of solar and battery technology has finally made leaving the grid a sensible option.

The RMI study looked at New York, Kentucky, Texas, California, and Hawaii, and highlighted several different possible outcomes over the coming decades. The most immediate changes will come from places like Hawaii, where power is expensive and solar energy systems are already reaching parity. Surprisingly, the report also contends that tens of millions will leave the grid in New York and California by 2020.

Even if some areas never reach parity, the report raises the possibility that more people might begin leaving the grid for other reasons, such as climate change concerns. If people begin defecting from the grid in large enough numbers, the cost of electricity may rise, spurring a downward spiral for the utility providers.

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B. Super Utility Belt.     Photo: Damon Ahola and Richard Clarkson/MFA Products of Design

Become a Superhero

And occupy Comic Con

Marvel and DC Comics nerds, unite!

Researchers at UMass Amherst just developed Geckskin, a polymer that might soon let anyone walk on walls.

To get the polymer to stick, researchers moved away from the industry's long-standing sole focus on the tiny hairs found on gecko's feet and successfully integrated the gecko's skin-tendon-bone system—with a novel pad design—for real-world application, according to a report published in Advanced Materials.

Are your spider senses tingling yet?

The second key development: By combining soft elastomers and ultrastiff fabrics (glass and carbon fiber), researchers were able to adjust the stiffness of Geckskin, optimizing it for a broader range of surfaces.

"The gecko's ability to stick to a variety of surfaces is critical for its survival, but it's equally important to be able to release and restick whenever it wants," a professor of polymer science at UMass Amherst told ScienceDaily. But these gloves are not the only soon-to-be staple of your secret lair.

On Friday, two art school students released the B. Super Utility Belt, which includes everything you need to survive a street protest.

So what's it got? A gas mask, sign-making kit, roll of duct tape, lemon juice (the homespun tear gas remedy), and a mustache disguise. Yes, some adhesive facial hair.

"We were trying to be respectful of the protester but at the same time pushing the boundaries of what would be fun," Richard Clarkson, co-developer of the master's project from the School of Visual Arts in New York, told FastCo.Exist. "Riding that line was interesting for us."

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Traveling from San Jose to Honolulu in a wheel well is just plane stupid.     Photo: CBS This Morning/YouTube

Stowaway Teen Survives 5-Hour Flight

Reached 38,000 feet

Most threats of running away from home are idle, but a California boy went to great heights to prove he was serious.

Early Sunday morning, the 16-year-old hopped a fence at San Jose International Airport in the wake of a family argument and stowed himself in the wheel well of a Maui-bound Boeing 767. He successfully avoided detection, and his flight of fancy became a reality—though he doesn't remember most of the five-and-a-half hour trip.

As the plane approached 38,000 feet, a combination of cold temperatures and lack of oxygen lulled him into new levels of unconsciousness. 

"It's amazing that he survived," FBI spokesman Tom Simon told the Associated Press. "Kid's lucky to be alive."

Outdoor temperatures at that altitude can drop as low as -65 degrees, but the Federal Aviation Administration explains high-altitude survival in this way:

"The presence of warm hydraulic lines in the wheel well and the initially warm tires provided significant heat. … The stable climb of the aircraft enabled hypoxia to lead to gradual unconsciousness. As the wheel-well environment slowly cooled, hypothermia accompanies the deep hypoxia, preserving nervous system viability."

While he is not the first wheel-well stowaway to successfully complete a flight, the FAA reports that more than 75 percent of attempts end in deaths.  

The boy, who woke and emerged from the wheel well an hour after landing, was questioned by the FBI when he was found walking about the tarmac with no identification. Despite appearing unharmed, he was quickly loaded into an ambulance. 

He has not been charged with a crime, though San Jose police are still weighing charges. 

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Oscar Mayer is recalling 96,000 pounds of hot dogs because they might mistakenly contain cheese.     Photo: icholakov/Getty Images

Cheese-Tainted Hot Dogs Recalled

96,000 pounds were compromised

Bad dogs! Kraft Foods will recall 96,000 pounds of Oscar Mayer wieners because they might contain cheese.

If you're thinking that doesn't sound so bad, well, you'd be right. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this is just a case of swapped labels: The products being sold as "Oscar Mayer Classic Wieners" are in fact the company's "Classic Cheese Dogs."

The mixup still isn't going to fly with USDA, which says the product labels don't list the actual ingredients—namely milk, a known allergen—of the cheese dogs.

A consumer reportedly notified Kraft of the problem on Friday. The company then alerted the federal agency to the issue the following day.

These dogs were made in early March and have the number "Est. 537H" inside the USDA inspection mark. If you have questions about the recall, you can reach Kraft's consumer relations department at (855) 688-4386.

The recall applies to:

  • Sixteen-ounce individual consumer packages of "Classic Wieners Made with Turkey & Chicken, Pork Added," with a "USE BY 16 Jun 2014" date and product code "044700000632."
  • Cases of 16-ounce packages that were distributed to retailers of "Classic Cheese Dogs Made with Turkey & Chicken, Pork Added, and Pasteurized Cheese Product," with a "USE BY 16 Jun 2014" date and case code "00447000005300." Those cases might have packages mistakenly labeled as "Classic Wieners."

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