Strange death from hypothermia

In the book A Walk in the Woods Bill Bryson relates a story (Chapter 15, I believe) of sixteen men that give a mayday call because their vessel is sinking. They are forced to abandon ship into the freezing water of the North Sea. They floated for an hour and a half, and miraculously they were all rescued. They were wrapped in blankets and taken below, but as soon as each one took a sip of their warm drink, every single one dropped dead. Why is that? Was the warmth a shock to their freezing body?

Sounds a bit like urban legend to me. Hypothermia shouldn’t be treated by immersion into hot water, as that dilates all the constricted blood vessels rapidly, causing a possibly fatal drop in blood pressure. But hot drinks would be an ideal way to start the warming process slowly.


I don’t know about the particular case Bryson describes. I’ve heard a similar tale about Danish fisherman from a sunken trawler or evacuees from an oil platform. However, death after rescue is a real concern for victims of hypothermia. I know of two possible causes:

oops, hit enter too soon.

  1. Improper rewarming can cause after drop where cold blood from the extremities returns to the core bringing it below the temperature necessary to sustain life.

  2. Rough handling or moving the victim into a vertical position can cause stress on the heart which is in a hyperexcitable state. The result is either ventricular fibrillation or a fatal decrease in blood pressure.

I had not heard the warm drink element of the story. Ironically, that is a very good treatment for someone one who is mildly hypothermic. There’s a lot of literature on the subject of immersion and non-immersion hypothermia, so I’ll let it go at that. I know of at least one paper that deals specifically with “death after rescue”, but the details elude me at the moment.

Here’s the context of the story, from a review.

It sounds like “afterdrop” to me, too.