Death is, by default, unwelcome. Most demises triggered by the natural world are relatively uneventful, but nature can be cruel and spectacularly gruesome from time to time, providing science with the unenviable task of picking apart how these deaths occurred, step-by-step.
Here’s a selection of five truly awful, messy, accidental and somewhat rapid ways to hurtle into oblivion, and the gut-wrenching science behind them. If you’ve not got a strong stomach, then abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Most of these are relatively painless for the victims - but they'd be rather awful to accidentally observe.
1 – The Missing Skulls of Ancient Rome
Death by pyroclastic flow – or its less dense, gas-rich cousin, the pyroclastic surge – isn’t a pleasant way to go. Although most people’s minds jump to Pompeii and Herculaneum in the year 79 CE, these hazards are quite obviously not a thing of the past. Travelling at typical speeds of 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour, but possibly far faster than that, their superheated mixture of gases, lava blebs, and debris can reach temperatures as high as 1,000°C (1,830 °F) and will indiscriminately annihilate anything in their path.
When these hellish density currents blasted across the rooftops and through the streets, they flash-fried anyone that they engulfed. The skin was instantly cooked, and the victims died of extreme heat shock, freezing them in a pugilistic pose – a coiled-up “instant rigor mortis” – as their muscles suddenly contracted. Any (un)lucky few that made it through the thermal annihilation stage likely suffocated under the toxic volcanic gas and ash.
There is one rather gruesome detail, though, that’s often not spoken of. The skulls of several of the victims in Herculaneum and Oplontis, both near Pompeii, were found to have shattered, and it’s likely that the extreme environmental heat would have caused the fluids within their skull and brain to boil. Within mere moments, this would have caused their heads to explode. How’s that for mind-blowing?
2 – The Diving Bell Accident
The Byford Dolphin, a semi-submersible drilling rig owned by BP in the North Sea, was doing its usual thing back on November 5, 1983. Several divers were working in the Frigg gas field with the help of a diving bell, a rigid chamber that’s designed to take divers to dangerous depths.
As these diving bells are put under enormous external pressure as they dive ever deeper, the air inside these bells is highly compressed, and the internal pressures can be incredibly high.
A rigorously safe procedure, involving two divers outside the bell, ensured that the diving bell could attach itself to a series of low-pressure chambers and trunks and allow the occupants to disembark without exposing themselves to a sudden drop in pressure.
That day, the diving bell was being winched back up to a shallow depth, and the procedure occurred as normal, at least at first. The divers had left the bell, and were in a sealed, trunk-like passageway between them and the decompression chamber. Another two divers were already in a different compartment of said chamber.
According to the History Channel, they were about to close the door between the trunk passageway and the chamber when something untoward took place. Varyingly blamed on the premature opening of the diving bell clamp and faulty equipment, the diving bell clamp suddenly opened, causing the bell – which was nine times more pressurized than the chambers – to explosively decompress. The four divers and one of the tenders outside the bell died instantly.
As painstakingly detailed by a 1988 study on the incident, three of the divers were instantly killed as the drop in pressure caused the air and fluids within them to expand rapidly and rupture their insides.
The diver nearest the door was blasted through a small, 60 centimeter (24 inch) gap between the truck door and the chamber when the event occurred, causing him to become “completely disintegrated,” with “parts of him found scattered about the rig.”
“The remains of diver 4 were sent to us in four plastic bags,” the study notes, explaining how various body parts, including the brain, respiratory system and more were obliterated. Weirdly, the liver was found somewhere on the deck – “complete, as if dissected out of the body.”
“The penis was present,” it adds, “but invaginated.” We’re going to let you Google that one.
One last note, if you’re still with us: the sudden low pressure boiled the divers’ blood, which caused the fats to become insolvable and secrete rapidly around their bodies.
3 – The Indoor Lightning Strike
The chances of dying from a lightning strike, let alone merely being hit by one, are vanishingly small – one in 1,083,000 in a given year in the US, for example. You’re more likely to die falling down the stairs, so really, it’s gravity you should watch out for.
The chances of dying in an indoor lightning strike, however, are ludicrously low. As first spotted by Popular Science, a case report, published in 2017, explains how a man died of just that.
Working next to a metallic pillar and between two metallic sawhorses, an overhead thunderstorm clearly decided his time was up. The bolt shot down through the pillar, leapt through his foot, traveled through his heart, and shot out through his right thumb.
Seventy percent of his body experienced first, second, and third-degree burns and the study notes that “the corpse revealed an unusual rigidity, which could not be overcome by manual force, thus inexplicable by rigor mortis alone.”
4 – Dissolving in a Volcanic Hot Pot
Yellowstone National Park may be sitting atop the world’s most famous supervolcano, but clearly, that’s not all there is to it. Yes, this volcano may be dormant right now, but its geothermal system of geysers and hot springs are anything but.
These geothermal pools are either fairly alkaline or incredibly acidic, and they’re always hot, with water temperatures always bubbling just below boiling. Falling into them is not recommended, but every now and then, someone does, often due to putting bravado over common sense.
One man recently fell into a pool within Norris Geyser Basin, and its superheated, extremely acidic waters ensured that he experienced a rather novel demise. Initially, it’s likely he experienced full thickness – or third degree – burns, which results in all three layers of your skin being damaged, blackened, leatherized, and ripped apart. His subcutaneous fat would have boiled away too.
Weirdly, this would have caused very little pain, as his nerve endings would have also burned away, leaving him unable to feel very much. He would have then quickly succumbed to extreme heat shock and potentially bleeding out, although it’s unclear what killed him first.
Within less than a day, his body – yes, even his skeleton – had completely dissolved, and no remains could be found. Let that be a warning, kids: hot springs will melt you away, like a sugar lump in a freshly brewed coffee.
5 – Death by Boomslang
Although sounding a lot more like a weapon or a potion ingredient from the wizarding world of Harry Potter, a boomslang is a venomous snake. Although they aren’t particularly aggressive, if they feel threatened, they might take a snap at you. If their rear fangs manage to penetrate your skin, you’ll be envenomed, with the toxic substance coursing through your body.
Thanks to their shyness and the prevalence of anti-venom, you’d have to be seriously unlucky to die via boomslang. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the fate that befell herpetologist Karl P. Schmidt, who was brought a specimen to identify back in September of 1957, at Chicago’s Natural History Museum.
As beautifully brought to life by a Science Friday video, the snake bit his left thumb during his examination. He documented the effect the venom was having – and he promptly died the following day.
Judging by his journal, it wasn’t a pleasant death either: starting with powerful nausea, he then developed a chill followed by severe shaking and a rapidly rising body temperature. He starting bleeding from the mouth, and urinated a bit of blood during the night, before violently vomiting up his dinner.
He continued to bleed from his various orifices, including his nose and eyes, for some time afterward, before eventually losing his ability to respond to external stimuli. He died of respiration paralysis that afternoon, as his heart and brain began to bleed out.
As it happens, boomslang venom causes the body to produce a plethora of tiny blood clots, rending it unable to clot in the immediate future. Ultimately, this causes its prey to die of exsanguination.