This image captures the moment when a fire breathing performance at the Philadelphia Tattoo Convention went wrong. Thankfully the accident wasn't as dramatic as this image suggests; no one was seriously hurt and no major damage was caused. However, this story, which has hit national news stations in the US and been all over social media, raises some serious issues, all of which have safety at their heart.
The video below, recorded by a spectator of the performance, shows the whole incident. It appears to show that after the performer's first breath his t-shirt catches fire. He takes another mouthful of fuel before noticing the small flame on his clothing. It then appears that he attempts to blow the flame out, forgetting he has a mouthful of fuel. Thankfully the resulting fireball, as shown in the image, is very fleeting, apparently causing no harm.
In the rush to extinguish the now larger flame on his t-shirt, the performer drops his fuel bottle, spilling the remaining fuel across the floor. This results in a large fire that threatens to spread to the wall hangings before it is extinguished by an upturned table.
Many safety precautions appear to have been ignored in this incident. Ideally a fire safety officer from the performer's company would have been on hand to extinguish the initial small clothing fire before the situation escalated. Holding and open fuel bottle while breathing is another safety hazard - the reasons are evident in the video. The type of fuel used is also a point of contention and the fact no fire extinguisher or fire blanket appeared on the scene and the blaze is tackled with a table and glass of water (water should not be used to tackle fires caused by liquids).
As we've mentioned, no one was seriously hurt; the performer suffered very minor first degree burns (the least bad type of burn). Any damage to property was also extremely minor. However, it has been argued by some social media commentators that it's the reputation of fire breathing, and potentially fire performance in general, that has suffered the worst injury from this accident. The national and international coverage may lead to the public, including promoters and event organisers, to see fire performance as inherently dangerous. Of course, there is always a risk with fire, just like there is when you get in a car, but, like driving, if everyone follows the safety rules those risks are all but eliminated. The worry is that negligence of this type will affect professional performers' ability to get work and amateur enthusiasts' ability to spin fire in a park.
The Inkllussionists, the company behind this performance, issued a statement to respond to the online criticisms. They said: "We except full responsibility for ignoring our own normally high safety standards and the occurrences that happen there after... We would like to apologize to the owners, and promoters of the Philadelphia Tattoo Convention, the building, all whom were in attendance, as well as the performing community as a whole. This was an aberration of a performance not the normal method by which we operate and it will never be allowed to occur again.
"We have as a group chosen to remove any further uses of fire from the 2015 performances of our stage show “SteamPunX” and are currently consulting with several experts in the Fire performing community on a complete revamp of our uses of fire to bring anything we do to the absolute highest standards of those communities (sic)."
Fire breathing is probably the most dangerous of fire performing arts, even when safety precautions are fully and properly followed. However, those risks can be minimised and an accident like is should never have happened and it was extremely lucky that it didn't cause more harm.
Firetoys has never encouraged fire breathing and strictly only sells fire equipment to over 18s. We supply equipment and safety information of the highest calibre and strongly enourage anyone who decides they want to fire breath to do their research and get proper training and instruction on breathing techniques and safety precautions. A good place to start for this sort of information is the Fire Breathers International Facebook group.