The fine art of surfacing: Blaine's bubble bursts

The illusionist spent almost 180 hours in his goldfish bowl in New York, and then held his breath for seven minutes and eight seconds as he attempted to escape from handcuffs and chains. His world record bid ended in failure. Or did it? By David Usborne
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The Independent US

It would not be fair to describe David Blaine's latest stunt of extraordinary human endurance as a damp squib. While he failed on Monday night to break the world record for holding his breath under water, he did fulfil his other ambition, and hardly for the first time: causing millions of nervous fans worldwide to bite their lips.

The setting this time was a transparent, water-filled sphere on the plaza outside the Lincoln Centre in Manhattan. The goldfish inside it was the 33-year-old magician Blaine. In fact, when the television cameras started rolling for a live two-hour special on Monday, Blaine had been inside it for 177 hours.

No human being has spent that much time immersed in water, so there was a record straight off. But the climax came when Blaine's assistants detached the pipes that had supplied him with oxygen and siphoned away any waste, thus leaving Blaine to hold his breath beyond the existing record of eight minutes and 58 seconds.

Blaine, who holds the legendary escapologist Houdini as his hero and inspiration as well as his mother, Patrice, who died of cancer when he was 17, had to do more than just hold his breath. To give the proceedings extra drama, he had to free himself from 150lb of chains and handcuffs.

Now we learn that in spite of losing 50lb and spending close to a year in training with the occasional assistance of the US Navy Seals, Blaine may have been hampered by his robust physique. It is best, if you want to do this sort of thing, to be extremely skinny with unnaturally large lungs.

It was as the stop-watch showed a "mere" seven minutes and eight seconds that divers plunged into the bowl and plucked Blaine to safety. Fans may have been disappointed at his premature surfacing, but the man was nearing unconsciousness, his body beginning to spasm as it demanded air.

Yesterday, the illusionist who started his career doing card tricks on New York's streets, remained under observation at a local hospital. His ailments extended far beyond prune-like skin familiar to anyone fond of long baths. He was suffering from pins and needles in his feet and hands, as well as loss of sensation and rashes all over his body. According to the lead doctor on his team, Murat Gunel, he had begun showing signs of liver failure even on day two of being underwater.

"We started to see a lot of contractions where just the insane urge to breathe was giving us the precursor to him losing respiratory control," Blaine's trainer, Kirk Krack, said yesterday, explaining the decision to cut the stunt. He added that Blaine had initially resisted their attempts to get him out and that he had voiced disappointment afterwards at falling short. "He felt he let people down."

But Blaine knows that he did not flop altogether. He will always have his detractors, who regard his frequent stunts as fatuous and self-publicising. Yet, publicity is what he always gets. The Lincoln Plaza, more usually a place for lingering lovers of opera, was packed full with spectators for his derring-do on Monday night. And few of his peers can thus command two hours of prime-time network television. One spectator, David Linker, said Blaine symbolised "man's strength to go beyond what normal people can do".

New Yorkers seem more willing to embrace his antics than Londoners, many of whom taunted Blaine in 2003 when he suspended himself above the Thames in a clear box for 44 days without food. Some passers-by pelted his temporary home with raw eggs. Yet even in London he drew the headlines he sought - and a reported £600,000 for the television rights.

Blaine, a Brooklyn local, has stayed close to home for most of his acts, however. Over recent years, stunts in Manhattan have included standing atop a 100ft pole for 35 hours before leaping onto a pile of cardboard boxes, burying himself alive inside see-through coffin and surviving inside a massive block of ice for 61 hours.

After taking oxygen on Monday, he spoke briefly to the crowd of fans and merely curious. "I am humbled so much by the support of everyone from New York City and from all over the world," Blaine said. "This was a very difficult week, but you all made it fly by with your strong support and your energy."

Last night, Blaine left the hospital where he had been under supervision.