Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dying In A Freezer — A Lesson In Situational Awareness

When Jay Luther stepped into the walk-in freezer at his restaurant, he fully expected to come out alive. Unfortunately, he didn't.

Here's what happened:

On Friday, there was a power outage that affected the restaurant owned by Mr. Luther. Employees, concerned about keeping the food safe, place dry ice inside the freezer to keep everything cold.  On Sunday, the power came back on and Luther walked into the freezer to get some supplies for cooking.
The door closed behind him, and he was trapped.

About now, you might be thinking Jay Luther froze to death while trapped in his own freezer. But according to the official report, the probable cause of death was asphyxia as carbon dioxide gas was released by the dry ice into the tightly sealed freezer compartment.

Luther's commercial freezer had a safety release button on the inside that was supposed to allow anyone inside to open the door. But the button was evidently broken.

So, what we have here is a death that can be attributed to a failure of situational awareness. Had Mr. Luther been aware that the safety button was broken, and had he taken steps to have it repaired, he might be alive today.

Even though the "agent of death" might be asphyxia, or hypothermia, or an 18-wheeler that clobbers you as you step off the curb, the real cause of death is often a lack of situational awareness.

Maintaining situational awareness is a core principle of survival. Here are a few ways to do it.

Keep eyes and ears open — watch what people are doing around you.

Be aware of danger zones, and stay out of them.

Test safety equipment to make sure it works.

Check the weather, and take appropriate precautions to stay dry.

Inspect vehicle gauges before taking off.

Is your zipper up and shoes tied? Is your slip showing (for those of you who wear slips)?

Turn around to see if there a mountain lion following you.

Check your backtrail for landmarks you'll use when hiking in the opposite direction.

Inventory your bug-out-bag often.

Be sure of your footing before shifting your weight.

Ask yourself where the will blade go if it slips — make sure it isn't into your flesh.

Look both ways (twice) before crossing.

Find out what that noise is.

Pay attention to sources of water, food, shelter, and essential supplies.

Maintain general awareness of what's going on around you.


  1. This is somewhat inappropriate, considering this individual just died yesterday morning. But beyond that, the breakdown of dry ice releases carbon dioxide, not carbon monoxide. If you're going to write a survival blog, and keep on about "situational awareness", become aware of the situation known as chemistry and get your facts straight.

  2. Sorry if you felt that the post was inappropriate due to the recent passing of Mr. Luther. I certainly didn't mean to offend anyone's sensibilities. And the good news is that you, indeed, caught the error in reporting that the death might have been a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. As you noted, dry ice is nothing but a big block of frozen carbon dioxide — not carbon monoxide. But carbon dioxide is no safer in a confined space (such as a sealed freezer compartment) than carbon monoxide. Death results from asphyxiation. Dry ice should be used only in well-ventilated places. Still, the issue about situational awareness was the real core of the information I wanted to deal with. You and I may never be locked inside a freezer whose safety release mechanism has been broken, and our failure to be aware of that leads to our demise. But every day we face numerous situations in which our lack of awareness can wreak havoc. Simply not checking the blind spot while driving can get us crushed. Thanks for your catch. Good job!

  3. Interesting, I've never been in a walk in freezer with dry ice in it, but I've been in lots of walk ins when working in cafes (like out at Granny's Cafe) and food storage places over my many years. So all I will say is that it's stupid not to make sure the inside release isn't working right.

  4. Having sat through numerous safety briefings with a couple branches of the military, I must respectfully disagree with Mr. Anonymous that this is an inappropriate subject, for a couple of reasons. First, I'm sure the local newspaper or TV news station ran a story covering the same facts presented here. Second, I cannot think of a situation where reviewing the events that led up to an accident should be considered off limits. The purpose, of course, is to avoid a similar incident if the future. There is no compassion in letting others make mistakes in an effort to avoid hurting feelings.