When I was at school I used to belong to a junior book club, which occasionally had some decidedly non-junior titles on offer. One book in particular lives long in the memory. It was a paperback called something like Disasters of the 20th Century, which covered everything from the Hindenburg disaster to the 1955 Le Mans tragedy (including a graphic description of how some spectators were decapitated by a flying axle). It was a dark read for an eight-year-old, but I read it cover to cover numerous times.
If that book club is still going, I can only imagine that ‘The Bumper Book of Serial Killers’ is currently on special offer, alongside a ‘Where’s Wally?’ book based entirely in the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Kids searching for Wally will eventually pick out the cowering prisoner in the orange jumpsuit, wearing spectacles over his hooded head, as a CIA interrogator flushes his bobble hat down the toilet and threatens to blow his nuts off.
Anyway, I digress. The point is: I hold Disasters of the 20th Century and its chapter on the Le Mans tragedy entirely responsible for my fear of dying in a freak accident. Don’t get me wrong, I’m scared of dying in all the conventional ways too. But it’s the bizarre accidents and the deaths from seemingly innocuous events that scare me the most.
I got thinking about this recently after reading about a shop worker at the Carphone Warehouse who fell down four steps on her tea break (approximately three feet), hit her head on the bottom step and died. Typically, after reading this tragic story – and clearly not satisfied with such fleeting feelings of horror gurgling around in my stomach – I then hit Wikipedia and spent all afternoon reading about other freakish deaths.
Some notable and unusual stories of people meeting their maker were:
1) Diana Durre, who was killed in April last year, when a 65-foot high-rise Taco Bell sign fell on top of her pickup truck. It was described as “a one-in-a-million freak accident” and police officers at the scene said that if her car been parked just three feet forward or backwards the outcome could have been completely different, and she might not have been injured.
2) Dr Hitoshi Nikaidoh, who was decapitated in a freak elevator accident in August 2003 at Christus St. Joseph Hospital in Houston, Texas. A subsequent investigation into the gruesome accident revealed that improper electrical wiring, which had only been installed by a maintenance company several days earlier, had effectively bypassed all of the elevator’s safeguards.
3) American novelist and short story writer, Sherwood Anderson, who died in Panama in 1941 of peritonitis after he accidentally swallowed a piece of a toothpick embedded in a martini olive at a party.
Great. Now I’m too scared to even go outside…or quaff a Martini to calm my nerves.
I’ve even read some near-death stories that are pretty freakish. A while ago, I read about a man who opened a bag of compost and caught a rare form of Legionnaires’ disease after inhaling the dust from the bag. He spent seven weeks on a ventilator fighting for his life.
A few weeks after reading that story I opened a bag of compost myself. Needless to say, I had so many scarves wrapped round my face as I pulled the bag open, my neighbours must have thought that a green-fingered insurgent had invaded their peaceful communal garden. Still, I was prepared – and I survived.
It seems like the proverbial ‘bullet with our name on’ can cut us down at any moment. Although, it’s comforting to think that the guy who engraves the bullets probably died of a rare allergic reaction many years ago, after accidentally inhaling some brass shavings and spewing his ribcage all over his workbench.
But it’s not all me, me, me. I panic about the well-being of loved ones as well. My girlfriend slipped on some ice and banged her head a few weeks ago. My slightly alarmist text message to her read: “If you start to feel sick or dizzy, get to a hospital immediately. Two words: Natasha Richardson.”
You’ll be pleased to know that my girlfriend is fine. It’s possible I may have slightly overreacted. But you can’t be too careful.
The other thing with dying suddenly in a freakish or bizarre manner is how you’ll be remembered. I’ve thought about this recently after BBC presenter Kristian Digby’s untimely death after a suspected attempt at auto-erotic asphyxiation. Because the truth is: whatever success you enjoyed while alive, and whatever the nature of your contribution to the planet, your slightly weird death will always be a talking point.
For instance, if you managed to successfully banish war, Katie Price and Kerry Katona from the earth forever, you would be deified in a heartbeat. But if you were then found dead in your living room with fifteen Ariel Liquitabs shoved up your bum and a suffocating mouthful of Soreen (the whole loaf), your brokering of peace on earth would instantly become a footnote in your Wikipedia entry. (If Tony Blair wants the world to forget his role in the invasion of Iraq, he knows what to do.)
So stay safe out there, kids. It’s a scary old world. Death lurks around every corner…and in every cocktail olive.