Karel Soucek (1947 – 1985)
At the risk of being accused of scraping the barrel the latest inductee to our Hall of Fame and our first candidate for admission in 2015 is the Czech born stuntman, Karel Soucek.
Although born in Czechoslovakia Soucek’s family emigrated to Canada and he lived in the town of Hamilton in Ontario. Being a bit of a daredevil Karel’s attention naturally gravitated to one of the local wonders of the world, the Niagara Falls. He decided to go over the Falls in a barrel, as you do. Soucek carried out meticulous research by analysing previous attempts and by sending unmanned barrels over the falls to test the strength and direction of the prevailing currents.
At last, on 2nd July 1984, he was ready. He had a rather smart custom-made barrel whose dimensions were nine feet long and five feet wide, bright red in colour and bearing the legends, “Last of the Niagara Daredevils – 1984” and “It’s not whether you fail or triumph, it’s that you keep your word… and at least try!”
The barrel with Soucek inside was rolled into the Niagara river about 1,000 feet above the cataract of the Niagara Falls. The barrel was swept over the edge but shortly afterwards our hero emerged, blooded but unbowed. He was the first person in 23 years to go over the Falls. But Soucek’s derring-do didn’t please everybody and he ended up with a $500 fine for performing the stunt without a licence. This unexpected expense coupled with the $15,000 spent on developing the barrel and the $30,000 spent on filming the exploits left Soucek financially embarrassed.
So he set up a museum at the Falls to display the impedimenta he used to carry out his stunts and persuaded sponsors to back another stunt – this time to drop a specially designed barrel containing Soucek from the top of the Houston Astrodome into a tank of water some 9 feet deep and 12 feet wide which was 180 feet below.
On 19th January 1985 in front of a crowd of 35,000 Soucek was secured into his barrel. However, according to contemporary reports, not all was well at the outset. When Karel entered the barrel it started spinning badly and the attendants struggled to stabilise it. With the crowd getting restless Soucek’s attendants seemed to have decided what the heck and dropped him anyway. Inevitably, the barrel started spinning and whilst it made the tank it hit the side of the tank rather than entering the middle of the tank.
As a result of the impact Karel’s chest and abdomen was crushed and his skull fractured. At first the crowd, who seem to have been a heartless lot, applauded and cheered wildly as the barrel entered the tank, thinking that the stunt had been accomplished successfully. Their mood only changed when they saw a team of paramedics rushing to our hero’s aid. Soucek died of his injuries in the nearby hospital the following day, putting a bit of a dampener on the Thrill Show and Destruction Derby.
Soucek seemed to have been of a stoical disposition. He was once quoted as saying, “There is no heaven or hell; there is no God. You’re born, you live, one day you die and that’s it”. There’s not much more to it than that although not all of us would want to test the veracity of this view by plunging 180 feet off a roof in a self-designed barrel into a tank of water.
Karel, for your stoical attitude to life and foolhardiness in being the architect of your own demise, you are a worthy inductee.
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