CHAPTER XX. A CHAPTER OF ACCIDENTS.
In the same month an attempt to reach a record height was made by MM. Jovis and Mallet at Paris, with the net result that an elevation of 23,000 feet was reached. It will have been noted that the difficulty through physical exhaustion of inhaling oxygen from either a bag or cylinder is a serious matter not easily overcome, and it has been suggested that the helmet invented by M. Fleuss might prove of value. This contrivance, which has scarcely attracted the attention it has merited, provides a receptacle for respiration, containing oxygen and certain purifying media, by means of which the inventor was able to remain for hours under water without any communication with the outward air.
About the period at which we have now arrived two fatal accidents befel English aeronauts. We have related how Maldon, in Essex, was associated with one of the more adventurous exploits in Mr. Simmons's career. It was fated also to be associated with the voyage with which his career closed. On August 27th, 1888, he ascended from Olympia in company with Mr. Field, of West Brighton, and Mr. Myers, of the Natural History Museum, with the intention, if practicable, of crossing to Flanders; and the voyage proceeded happily until the neighbourhood of Maldon was reached, when, as the sea coast was in sight, and it was already past five o'clock, it appeared prudent to Mr. Simmons to descend and moor the balloon for the night. Some labourers some three miles from Maldon sighted the balloon coming up at speed, and at the same time descending until its grapnel commenced tearing through a field of barley, when ballast was thrown out, causing the balloon to rise again towards and over some tall elms, which became the cause of the disaster which followed. The grapnel, catching in the upper boughs of one of these trees, held fast, while the balloon, borne by the force of a strong wind, was repeatedly blown down to earth with violence, rebounding each time to a considerable height, only to be flung down again on the same spot. After three or four impacts the balloon is reported to have burst with a loud noise, when high in the air, the silk being blown about over the field, and the car and its occupants dashed to the ground. Help was unavailing till this final catastrophe, and when, at length, the labourers were able to extricate the party, Mr. Simmons was found with a fractured skull and both companions badly injured.
Four summers later, June 30th, 1892, Captain Dale, the aeronaut to the Crystal Palace, was announced to make an ascent from the usual balloon grounds, weather permitting. Through the night and morning a violent storm prevailed, and it was contemplated that the exhibition would be withdrawn; but the wind abating in the afternoon, the inflation was proceeded with, and the ascent took place shortly before 6 p.m., not, however, before a large rent had been discovered and repaired as far as possible by Mrs. Dale. As passengers, there ascended the Captain's son William, aged nineteen, Mr. J. Macintosh, and Mr. Cecil Shadbolt. When the balloon had reached an altitude estimated at 600 feet the onlookers were horrified to see it suddenly collapse, a large rent having developed near the top part of the silk, from which the gas "rushed out in a dense mass, allowing the balloon to fall like a rag." The occupants of the car were seen to be throwing out everything madly, even wrenching the buttons from their clothing. All, however, with little avail, for the balloon fell "with a sickening thud," midway between the Maze and lower lake. All were found alive; but Captain Dale, who had alighted on his back, died in a few minutes; Mr. Shadbolt succumbed later, and both remaining passengers sustained terrible injuries.
Few balloon mishaps, unattended with fatal results, have proved more exciting than the following. A large party had ascended from Belfast, in a monster balloon, under the guidance of Mr. Coxwell, on a day which was very unfit for the purpose by reason of stormy weather. A more serious trouble than the wind, however, lay in several of the passengers themselves, who seem to have been highly excitable Irishmen, incapable at the critical moment of quietly obeying orders
The principal hero of the story, a German. Mr. Runge, in writing afterwards to the Ulster Observer, entirely exonerates Mr. Coxwell from any blame, attributing his mischances solely to the reprehensible conduct of his companions. On approaching the ground, Mr. Coxwell gave clear instructions. The passengers were to sit down in an unconstrained position facing each other, and be prepared for some heavy shocks. Above all things they were to be careful to get out one by one, and on no account to leave hold of the car. Many of the passengers, however, refused to sit down, and, according to Mr. Runge, "behaved in the wildest manner, losing completely their self-control. Seizing the valve rope themselves, they tore it away from its attachment, the stronger pushing back the weaker, and refusing to lend help when they had got out. In consequence of this the car, relieved of their weight, tore away from the grasp of Mr. Coxwell and those who still clung to it, and rose above the trees, with Mr. Runge and one other passenger, Mr. Halferty, alone within. As the balloon came earthwards again, they shouted to the countrymen for succour, but without the slightest avail, and presently, the anchor catching, the car struck the earth with a shock which threw Mr. Halferty out on the ground, leaving Mr. Runge to rise again into the air, this time alone." He thus continues the story: -