The Fourth of July weekend brought a lot of barbecues, speed-eating competitions, fireworks, and unfortunately, death for a family. A fun hot dog eating contest quickly turned to tragedy when a 41-year-old competitive eater of Custer, S.D., started to choke to death after a hot dog became lodged in his throat. Despite a CPR attempt and medical attention from paramedics, Walter Eagle Tail was pronounced dead after he arrived by ambulance to Custer Regional Hospital.

"There was someone doing CPR when we arrived," said Rick Wheeler, Custer County Sheriff, to Rapid City Journal. "Basically, he probably just suffocated. It got lodged in his throat and they couldn't get it out. It all happened within minutes. I think everybody was pretty well shocked about it."

The news of Eagle Tail’s death put a damper on the Fourth of July weekend festivities sponsored by the Custer Chamber of Commerce. Organizers cancelled a planned pie eating contest scheduled for Friday, a day after the competitive eater’s death. Custer Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Dave Ressler acknowledged this is the first time anyone has gotten hurt during the few years the local contest has been held in the town. "We are mourning for Walter and his family right now,” he said.

Family and friends of Eagle Tail’s, like Ardis McRae, who works for Native Sun News weekly paper and occasionally sold jewelry with Eagle Tail at the Crazy Horse Memorial for three years, remembers him fondly. Eagle Tail was described as a man who loved a good joke and to help friends in need. At Crazy Horse, he would sell bear claw necklaces. "Walter was just being Walter, having fun when he entered this contest," McRae said. "He was just having a good time."

McRae took to her Facebook page, which has served as a medium for where tributes have been left to Eagle Tail. She captioned the photo: “this is my friend, Walter Eagle Tail, 47, he died Thursday. he will be missed.” Condolences have been left by several of McRae’s friends.

Eagle Tail chokes to death in hot dog eating contest
Photo courtesy of Ardis M. McRae/Facebook. Ardis M. McRae/Facebook

Eagle Tail’s death is one of the rare occurrences that occurs in competitive eating, which has reached recent popularity over the years. Deaths during competitive eating contests have happened in the past, across the world, including the recent death of a Romanian man during a sausage-eating contest in 2013. The unidentified 60-year-old man was participating in the eating competition when he began to choke and eventually passed out.

According to the graphic YouTube video uploaded by Alin Costin, EMTs try to revive the man in the video, but aren’t successful. Medics say he could have been saved if someone had performed the Heimlich maneuver when he began choking, The Huffington Post reported.

The recent tragedies in eating contests highlight the dangers of competitive eating. Top competitive eaters train intensively before the competition, although spectators hardly get to see this. What spectators do see is competitors stuffing their faces with food, so they may believe endlessly indulging in large quantities of food is not of concern.

Doctors like Dr. Shanthi Sitaraman, gastroenterologist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, worry that competitive eating can be downright dangerous. “[B]inge eating could cause stomach perforations in people with undiagnosed ulcers,” said Sitaraman. Another risk is water intoxication for competitive eaters who consume large amounts as part of their training. This can cause dilution of electrolytes in the blood.

The bottom line is people shouldn’t try this at home. There is more to an eating contest than just eating fast. Like athletes, competitive eaters train for a few months at a time.