A few moments before the tragedy

Being retired from outside work, my wife has time to follow some peculiar news feeds, and last night she told me of a bizarre accident that killed three and injured several others.

Ekaterina Didenko is a 29-year-old mother of two and internet influencer. According to news reports she is a “qualified pharmacist” and has attracted over a million followers of her comments about medicines and related issues.

For her 29th birthday, her husband Valentin, an IT specialist, had what he probably thought was a great idea: he would rent a sauna room in a sports complex in Moscow, where they lived, and throw some dry ice in the pool to make cool-looking vapours.

The couple and their friends being internet-savvy and addicted to constant self-documentation, there are plenty of pictures online showing Ekaterina holding “2” and “9” balloons, shots with her husband Valentin against romantic backgrounds, and a video of someone, possibly Valentin, in full hazmat gear throwing 25 kg (about 60 pounds) of dry ice into the small enclosed pool (we’re talking Moscow in the winter here, so the only swimming most people do this time of year is in indoor pools).

As Valentin hoped, the pool started to boil with clouds of water vapor, and Valentin and a few friends jumped in. Then things started to go horribly wrong.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an inert, colorless gas, and is produced by the human body during respiration. But it will not support life, and if you try to breathe pure CO2 for more than a few seconds, you will pass out through lack of oxygen.

It’s a fairly easy matter to calculate how much CO2 gas 25 kg of dry ice will produce. The result is about 14 cubic meters, which is enough to fill a 5 by 5 meter room (about 17 feet square) up to a depth of 50 cm, or almost two feet. And it would be at the lowest level in the room, because CO2 gas is heavier than air. I don’t know exactly how large the room was, but the photos I have seen indicate it was fairly small, and the pool would have probably been below the level of the floor in any case.

Even if all the dry ice didn’t vaporize at once, there would soon be enough to cover the surface of the pool, which is where a swimmer’s nose and mouth are. Poor Valentin may not have fully realized what he’d done before the lack of breathable air caused him to pass out while still in the water. He and two of his guests died of asphyxiation, and Ekaterina and several more friends ended up in a hospital with severe breathing problems.

My sympathies are with Ekaterina, her children, the relatives and friends of the others who died, and everyone affected by this tragedy. It’s especially ironic given that it arose from a desire to please a loved one who was evidently known and admired by many people.

That being said, it’s nevertheless remarkable that no one apparently realized the dangers involved in what they were doing. One hopes that degrees in IT and pharmacy include some training in basic chemistry and physics. It’s possible that somebody at the party at least had doubts that dumping 25 kg of dry ice into a warm pool of water in a small enclosed room was a good idea.

But something took place that day which is at the root of many technological and engineering mishaps: a reluctance to be a party-pooper.

Imagine that you were at the party and had at least grounds to suspect that this much dry ice could cause dangerous concentrations of CO2. What would you have done? Jumped in front of Valentin and cried, “Don’t do that! It’s dangerous!”?

In the midst of a celebratory atmosphere and where alcohol was involved, such an action would not only be psychologically difficult. Unless you’re the perennial wet-blanket type who enjoys spoiling other peoples’ fun (in which case you probably wouldn’t be invited to the party in the first place), it would be hard to let the calm, rational part of your mind overrule the fun-loving, go-with-the-flow part and spoil the treat that Valentin had obviously invested a lot of time and money in.

Even if you’d managed to voice concerns, it’s quite possible you’d be shouted down by the others and the accident would have happened anyway. Your only consolation then would have been to be able to say, “I told you so.”

One term for this effect is “groupthink”: the tendency of a group of people bonded by emotional or other ties to seek consensus even in the face of rational arguments to the contrary. It’s responsible for many engineering tragedies that could have been averted if someone knowing the facts had been able to persuade others that the course the group was taking was wrong.

From photos of the incident in news reports, Valentin and his friends were aware that dry ice was dangerous  but seemed to think that the main danger was in contacting it (hence the hazmat outfits). While it can cause painful burns, and apparently some guests were injured that way, extreme cold is not the only hazard dry ice can produce, as everyone involved in this incident now knows to their regret.

It is a tragedy that three people died and more were injured in an entirely preventable accident. But the wide publicity it is attracting can serve a good purpose.

If it ever occurs to anybody else to dump a lot of dry ice into an indoor pool, anyone who has heard of this accident can now recall it to mind and say, “Gee, didn’t some Russians die after somebody tried this very thing? I don’t think we ought to do that.” And next time, there’s a good chance that other people will listen to the party-pooper. 

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.  

Karl D. Stephan

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...