Despite the public boasting of several prominent executioners in late 19th-century Britain, a 1992 analysis of the remains of 34 prisoners found that in only about half of cases was the cause of death wholly or partly due to spinal trauma. Just one-fifth showed the classic “hangman’s fracture” between the second and third cervical vertebrae. The others died in part from asphyxiation.
Michael Spence, an anthropologist at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, has found similar results in US victims. He concluded, however, that even if asphyxiation played a role, the trauma of the drop would have rapidly rendered all of them unconscious. “What the hangmen were looking for was the quick cessation of activity,” he says. “And they knew enough about their craft to ensure that happened. The thing they feared most was decapitation.”
Lethal Injection to Death
Explosive Decompression to Death
In real life, there has been just one fatal space depressurization accident. This occurred on the Russian Soyuz-11 mission in 1971 when a seal leaked upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere; upon landing all three flight crew were found dead from asphyxiation. Most of our knowledge of depressurization comes from animal experiments and the experiences of pilots in accidents at very high altitudes.
When the external air pressure suddenly drops, the air in the lungs expands, tearing the fragile gas exchange tissues. This is especially damaging if the victim neglects to exhale prior to decompression or tries to hold their breath. Oxygen begins to escape from the blood and lungs.
Experiments on dogs in the 1950s showed that 30 to 40 seconds after the pressure drops, their bodies began to swell as the water in tissues vaporized, though the tight seal of their skin prevented them from “bursting”. The heart rate rises initially, then plummets. Bubbles of water vapor form in the blood and travel through the circulatory system, obstructing blood flow.
After about a minute, blood effectively stops circulating. Human survivors of rapid decompression accidents include pilots whose planes lost pressure, or in one case a NASA technician who accidentally depressurized his flight suit inside a vacuum chamber. They often report an initial pain, like being hit in the chest, and may remember feeling air escape from their lungs and the inability to inhale. Time to the loss of consciousness was generally less than 15 seconds.
Death is still a mystery and much is yet to be discovered. But, from what is revealed as of now, have you had any near-death experience? How does it feel like to die? Share your thoughts by commenting below.