The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

October 18, 2013

Tough Mudder makes safety changes on state course

CHARLESTON — Organizers of an obstacle course in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle say they’ve changed some safety procedures for this weekend’s event, including the oversight of a large water pit involved in a drowning six months ago.

Tough Mudder’s Mid-Atlantic event is set for Saturday and Sunday at the Peacemaker National Training Center in Glengary. Organizers are expecting more than 8,000 participants and 3,000 spectators.

Avishek Sengupta, 28, of Ellicott City, Md., died April 21, a day after being pulled from the water pit at the “Walk the Plank” obstacle. A medical examiner ruled he drowned.

It marked the first fatality for Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Tough Mudder, which debuted in 2010 and will have 53 events worldwide this year.

“We are continuing to use that obstacle and we’re confident in the safety protocols we have in place,” said Tough Mudder Chief Operating Officer Don Baxter.

An investigation report previously released by the Berkeley County sheriff’s department concluded there was no indication that Sengupta had been struck before or after entering the pit on April 20. Citing witness accounts, the report said members of Sengupta’s group became frantic when he didn’t emerge, and several minutes elapsed before he was pulled from the pit’s cold, deep, murky waters.

Following the death, Baxter said Tough Mudder closely examined safety procedures on the course.

“Walk The Plank” involves climbing up a wooden wall to a platform, then jumping 15 feet into the pit while being monitored by volunteers, lifeguards and divers.

Baxter said additional safety rails have been added to the obstacle and lifeguards will now focus on specific areas of the pit.

“We have a number of lifeguards who were watching the pool as a whole and would survey the entire area of water,” he said. “Now we’ve essentially just focused our responsibilities with individual lifeguards watching individual parts of the pool and watching participants go into the water and then come back out again.”

Edward Denn, an attorney for the Andover, Mass., law firm Gilbert and Renton representing the Sengupta family, accused Tough Mudder of failing to adhere to safety practices at the spring event and said Thursday the family plans legal action.

“It’s extremely disappointing that Tough Mudder has chosen to reuse that obstacle, particularly at that location,” Denn said.

The Tough Mudder course has 20 obstacles that challenge participants’ mental and physical stamina and strength. Some involve jumping into ice-filled water, traversing a field full of live electric wires, and crawling on hands and knees through water with live wires closely overhead. There also are two endurance exercise areas and three mystery terrain challenge areas.

Throughout the 11-mile course, part of which runs through Virginia, there are an estimated 700,000 gallons of mud and a vertical change of 1,775 feet. Participants must be at least 18 years old and sign a liability waiver.

“It is impossible to remove risk entirely from these kinds of events,” Baxter said. “But we work very hard to make our participants as safe as we can.”

Amphibious Medics provides onsite first-aid support for Tough Mudder events. The number of emergency services personnel, lifeguards and divers in place at the West Virginia event was unavailable. Baxter didn’t know an exact number, and neither Amphibious Medics nor the sheriff’s department immediately responded to telephone calls requesting comment.

To help manage the number of participants, groups are sent onto the course every 15 minutes.  

“We’re glad to have them back,” said Cole McCulloch, the training center’s owner, who said the community remains “heartbroken” over Sengupta’s death.

It will be the first Tough Mudder event for Eric Bonardi of Catonsville, Md. He was talked into it by his twin brother, Jason, who participated in another Tough Mudder event in Michigan.

“I’m as excited as I am nervous,” Eric Bonardi said Thursday.

He doesn’t like the potential of getting shocked or taking an ice-water bath. But it’s a way for the pair to celebrate their 43rd birthday.

Bonardi became aware of Sengupta’s death after his wife showed him a newspaper article. Bonardi said he has no concerns for his own safety.

“When you have an event like this, there’s a chance of things going wrong,” Bonardi said. “I feel better about my brother and me doing this together.”

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