Dean Gunnarson – The Coffin Escape Ordeal

Dean Gunnarson Upside Down and Under Water

[In honor of Dean Gunnarson’s most ambitious escape yet, we thought we would re-publish his story from June 3, 2006.

He tells us what it is like to die during an escape].

Dean Gunnarson was kind enough to describe what it feels like to die in the course of an escape that went horribly wrong.

As loyal readers of Inside Magic know, we have a special fondness and respect for escape artists.

It could be because Houdini was an inspiration to all of us to study and perform magic.

Dean Gunnarson has long been a favorite practitioner of this ridiculously dangerous but exhilarating art.

The man is talented, able, charismatic and clinically insane. How dangerous are his escapes?

We was watching a video tape of his escape from a straight jacket while hanging by his toes over the top of Hoover Dam.

Now, we know that he survived the stunt. After all, he sent us the video tape.

But we were so nervous and tense that we actually turned it off half way through, took a break, and then we finished watching.

We don’t want to ruin the show for you but we can tell you that he successfully escaped and survived.

If you visit Mr. Gunnarson’s website, you will see that you can order a deck of bubblegum cards featuring his greatest escapes.

It is an incredible collection and we urge you to get a set. You’ll notice two cards in the set that seem substantively different from the rest.

They depict Mr. Gunnarson chained within a casket as it is readied to dunk into the Red River in Winnipeg. The next card shows an unconscious Mr. Gunnarson being lifted away from the casket.

It is a stunning contrast of images.

We asked Mr. Gunnarson what happened, why he was unconscious and what did he learn. He was kind enough to write back.

Hi Tim:

The coffin escape is from my Houdini tribute in at Halloween in 1983.

I was 19 years old and wanted to try a big underwater escape to honor Houdini.

I was locked and chained in a wood coffin. The lid was nailed on and the coffin was then wrapped and locked in chains. My coffin was drilled full of holes to allow the water to freely enter the coffin.

To help the process, they weighted down the casket with cement blocks. The coffin was lifted into the air with a crane and lowered into the dark and icy Red River, Winnipeg,  Canada.

Needless to say the water at that time of year was indeed icy!

Winnipeg was built on the banks of the Winnipeg is a Cree Indian word meaning, “muddy water.” This river is dark and brown; you can not see an inch in front of your eyes when in the water.

When the coffin first hit the water I filled my lungs with air as I had trained myself to do.

After the coffin was three-quarters filled with water, it stopped sinking. I was holding my breath with my face pressed against the lid where I found a small pocket of air.

After a few moments I decided to try to take a fresh breath of air before the coffin finished sinking.

Just as I exhaled and pushed every drop of air out of my lungs, the coffin then sank below the surface leaving me in my dark underwater prison with out any air in lungs whatsoever.

I quickly realized I was not going to have enough air in my lungs to escape.

There was 10,000 people watching on the banks of the Red River cheering me on and I was 10 feet under water. There was no chance anyone would hear my muffled cries for help. My only thought was to relax, stay calm, and use as little air as possible.

My brain, heart, and lungs felt like they where going to explode.

It was about this time I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel and I was getting sucked towards it.

My last thought was “wishing for a high power to help me.”

This is very strange because I didn’t even believe in a higher power.

(Must have been a gut reaction when all else fails).

And then there was nothing.  Total darkness.

When I started to wake I could hear sirens but was unable to open my eyes.  I was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

I asked repeatedly where we were going.

Finally the ambulance guy who held the electric paddles on me and who was sticking needles into me, said which hospital we were heading to.

I felt relived – some what.

In every city there are good places to be and not so good places.

We were going to the good place; the same hospital I had been too many times before (and since!)

I then passed out again to the darkness.

Awaking one more time, I now found I was in the emergency room with a whole lot of strange and busy people doing painful things to my body that I didn’t want done.

One nurse wanted to cut my wet suit off.

Now being a struggling university student and an escape artist, I could not afford to lose my rented wet suit.

Somehow I managed to sit up, take my suit off myself and pass out again.

The next time I woke up, I counted 18 needle marks in my arms.

About that time everyone realized I was going to live and my family and manger was allowed to come see me.

They looked ghostly pale for some reason.

I later watched the television coverage of the event and realized why they all looked so pale.

I was told they finally pulled up the coffin at 3 minutes 37 seconds after getting signals from me to put me back in.

This was funny since I was on another journey at this time.

By the time my safety crew, police, and ambulance people pried open the lid it was well over four minutes.

I was blue, unconscious and dead.

I was down for about the time it takes for brain damage to occur.

The best quote in all the media coverage was from the police department.

The officers were asked questions about the escape and specifically, they wanted to know if I had any brain damage.

The police responded, “No more than when he went into the stupid coffin.”

It was one of those things in life I would never ever want to happen again.

But I am very glad I went through it because it taught me things that I could never could have learned any other way.

Since then I have traveled around the world doing many types of escapes, including underwater ones.

Recently, I was in China performing a TV special where they locked into a 55 gallon metal barrel and threw me in a tank with over 100 man eating sharks.

I escaped.

I guess they didn’t like Canadian food.

I have also been locked in packing crates thrown in the ocean, wooden barrels, locked in a shark cage at for “Magic in The Magic Kingdom” TV show for NBC.

I have attempted many bridge jumps into rivers, lakes, and oceans after being locked up by police officers; and of course Houdini’s Milk Can and Water Torture Cell.

In fact, I just performed the Water Torture Cell at Houdini Days in Appleton.

I will never let myself forget the cold Halloween day in that coffin.

It proved there is danger for an escape artist at any time.

What better thing to escape than from than Death on Halloween!

Always escaping, Dean Gunnarson

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