Barefoot walking over hot coals, an ancient religious ritual popularized in recent years as a corporate team-building exercise, has once again brought a group of co-workers together through the shared suffering of burnt feet.
In the latest case of a stunt gone wrong, 25 employees at a Swiss advertising agency were injured Tuesday night as they walked over hot coals in Zurich, officials said. Ten ambulances, two emergency medical teams and police from various agencies were dispatched to help, according to Zurich police. Thirteen people were briefly hospitalized.
“We are very sorry for the incident and are doing everything we can to ensure our employees get well again quickly,” said Michi Frank, chief executive of the company, Golbach, in a press release. The company declined to provide further details about the event.
The feeling that walking on hot coals requires a special inner state motivated his transformation from a mystical spiritual tradition into a capitalist project of self-improvement. The practice appears to have emerged separately thousands of years ago as a religious tradition in various places around the world.
In Greece, the tradition involves singing, dancing and walking on fire commemorating the rescue of icons from a burning church. Seemingly unrelated traditions also exist in Bali, Fiji, India and Japan.
Travel journalists popularized it, sometimes in mystical terms. “The secret is concentration,” reported the New York Times in 1973 of a firewalk at a temple above Kyoto. “Either mind, body and environment are in perfect harmony and all the sequences of cause and effect become simultaneous, or they are not, and nothing will go right.”
In the following years, it became a trope in film and television, most notably as the signature group activity at seminars led by Tony Robbins, the life coach and motivational speaker.
“Now let me show you how to walk on fire,” Mr. Robbins likes to advertise. He arranges long lines of people to walk down a small row of embers as he leads participants through a blood-curdling call and a response of “Say yes!” it is yes!”
“The purpose of firewalking,” he explained at a 2017 event, “is just a great metaphor for taking things you thought were difficult or impossible and showing how quickly you can change.”
Sometimes the metaphor gets a little too real. Dozens of participants who walked over hot coals at Robbins’ seminars in 2012 and 2016 were injured, some hospitalized with third-degree burns.
“It’s always a goal not to have guests with any discomfort afterwards, but it’s not uncommon for less than 1% of participants to experience ‘hot spots,’ which is similar to a sunburn that can be treated with aloe,” a spokeswoman for Mr. Robbins told The Washington Post after the 2016 episode.
Pop culture has sometimes scoffed at the emancipatory potential of walking through fire. In a 2007 episode of the NBC sitcom “The Office,” Dwight Schrute attempts to blackmail his boss, Michael Scott, not by crossing embers at a corporate retreat, but by deviously standing over them until he gets a promotion. In “Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls” (1995), Jim Carrey’s character walks through the coals just by throwing someone else on top of them and stepping on him.
But other depictions touted the potential for spiritual transformation, including the first season finale of the CBS reality show “Survivor” in 2000. Along the way, reports of injuries increased. In 2001, a dozen Burger King employees were injured at a corporate retreat in Key Largo that featured walks over hot coals.
Was this a spiritual failure? It is unlikely. With proper instruction and preparation, experts say, walking on hot coals is not as dangerous as it sounds.
“For the vast majority of people, maybe a blister the size of your fingernail is the worst thing that can happen to you,” a physicist, David Willey, said in a telephone interview Thursday. Willey, who taught for years at the University of Pittsburgh, once shared the world record for the longest distance covered over hot coals.
Willey said coals at 1,000 degrees are safe to walk on for 20 feet or more, adding that he walked on coals at that temperature for 495 feet without getting a bubble.
On his website, he writes that on a brisk walk, your bare foot comes into contact with embers for only about a second, which is not enough time for heat to painfully transfer from the embers to human flesh. Both coals and skin have much lower thermal conductivity than, say, metal, he said.
But mistakes can lead to injuries. This includes curling your toes and trapping a coal between them; walking on hot coals; choosing the wrong type of wood, as some heat up more than others; and taking a firewalk on a beach where your feet can sink into the sand, Willey said.
The organizer of the event in Zurich, Tommy Widmer, said in an interview with the Swiss news agency Blick that he had warned participants not to “walk, run or jump” over the fire, but to walk through it firmly and quickly. step” as a clip. Widmer said he felt sorry for those who were injured, but denied being responsible for the accident. “It could have been a big event,” he said.
Emma Bubola and Derrick Bryson Taylor contributed reports from London. Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin.