CHAPTER XIX. THE TRAGEDY OF THE ZENITH." - THE NAVIGABLE BALLOON
"At 23,000 feet we were standing up in the car. Sivel, who had given up for a moment, is re-invigorated. Croce-Spinelli is motionless in front of me.... I felt stupefied and frozen. I wished to put on my fur gloves, but, without being conscious of it, the action of taking them from my pocket necessitated an effort that I could no longer make.... I copy, verbatim, the following lines which were written by me, although I have no very distinct remembrance of doing so. They are traced in a hardly legible manner by a hand trembling with cold: 'My hands are frozen. I am all right. We are all all right. Fog in the horizon, with little rounded cirrus. We are ascending. Croce pants; he inhales oxygen. Sivel closes his eyes. Croce also closes his eyes.... Sivel throws out ballast' - these last words are hardly readable. Sivel seized his knife and cut successively three cords, and the three bags emptied themselves and we ascended rapidly. The last remembrance of this ascent which remains clear to me relates to a moment earlier. Croce-Spinelli was seated, holding in one hand a wash bottle of oxygen gas. His head was slightly inclined and he seemed oppressed. I had still strength to tap the aneroid barometer to facilitate the movement of the needle. Sivel had just raised his hand towards the sky. As for myself, I remained perfectly still, without suspecting that I had, perhaps, already lost the power of moving. About the height of 25,000 feet the condition of stupefaction which ensues is extraordinary. The mind and body weaken by degrees, and imperceptibly, without consciousness of it. No suffering is then experienced; on the contrary, an inner joy is felt like an irradiation from the surrounding flood of light. One becomes indifferent. One thinks no more of the perilous position or of danger. One ascends, and is happy to ascend. The vertigo of the upper regions is not an idle word; but, so far as I can judge from my personal impression, vertigo appears at the last moment; it immediately precedes annihilation, sudden, unexpected, and irresistible.
"When Sivel cut away the bags of ballast at the height of about 24,000 feet, I seemed to remember that he was sitting at the bottom of the car, and nearly in the same position as Croce-Spinelli. For my part, I was in the angle of the car, thanks to which support I was able to hold up; but I soon felt too weak even to turn my head to look at my companions. Soon I wished to take hold of the tube of oxygen, but it was impossible to raise my arm. My mind, nevertheless, was quite clear. I wished to explain, 'We are 8,000 metres high'; but my tongue was, as it were, paralysed. All at once I closed my eyes, and, sinking down inert, became insensible. This was about 1.30 p.m. At 2.8 p.m. I awoke for a moment, and found the balloon rapidly descending. I was able to cut away a bag of ballast to check the speed and write in my notebook the following lines, which I copy:
" 'We are descending. Temperature, 3 degrees. I throw out ballast. Barometer, 12.4 inches. We are descending. Sivel and Croce still in a fainting state at the bottom of the car. Descending very rapidly.'
"Hardly had I written these lines when a kind of trembling seized me, and I fell back weakened again. There was a violent wind from below, upwards, denoting a very rapid descent. After some minutes I felt myself shaken by the arm, and I recognised Croce, who had revived. 'Throw out ballast,' he said to me, 'we are descending '; but I could hardly open my eyes, and did not see whether Sivel was awake. I called to mind that Croce unfastened the aspirator, which he then threw overboard, and then he threw out ballast, rugs, etc.
"All this is an extremely confused remembrance, quickly extinguished, for again I fell back inert more completely than before, and it seemed to me that I was dying. What happened? It is certain that the balloon, relieved of a great weight of ballast, at once ascended to the higher regions.
"At 3.30 p.m. I opened my eyes again. I felt dreadfully giddy and oppressed, but gradually came to myself. The balloon was descending with frightful speed and making great oscillations. I crept along on my knees, and I pulled Sivel and Croce by the arm. 'Sivel! Croce!' I exclaimed, 'Wake up!' My two companions were huddled up motionless in the car, covered by their cloaks. I collected all my strength, and endeavoured to raise them up. Sivel's face was black, his eyes dull, and his mouth was open and full of blood. Croce's eyes were half closed and his mouth was bloody.
"To relate what happened afterwards is quite impossible. I felt a frightful wind; we were still 9,700 feet high. There remained in the car two bags of ballast, which I threw out. I was drawing near the earth. I looked for my knife to cut the small rope which held the anchor, but could not find it. I was like a madman, and continued to call 'Sivel! Sivel!' By good fortune I was able to put my hand upon my knife and detach the anchor at the right moment. The shock on coming to the ground was dreadful. The balloon seemed as if it were being flattened. I thought it was going to remain where it had fallen, but the wind was high, and it was dragged across fields, the anchor not catching. The bodies of my unfortunate friends were shaken about in the car, and I thought every moment they would be jerked out. At length, however, I seized the valve line, and the gas soon escaped from the balloon, which lodged against a tree. It was then four o'clock. On stepping out, I was seized with a feverish attack, and sank down and thought for a moment that I was going to join my friends in the next world; but I came to. I found the bodies of my friends cold and stiff. I had them put under shelter in an adjacent barn. The descent of the 'Zenith' took place in the plains 155 miles from Paris as the crow flies. The greatest height attained in this ascent is estimated at 28,000 feet."