The occurrence of pulmonary emboli in 617 patients admitted to a respiratory intensive care unit was studied. Pulmonary emboli were found in 18 (27 percent) of 66 autopsies. Half of these pulmonary emboli were not diagnosed before death, despite persistent aggressive attempts to document pulmonary emboli. In this subpopulation of patients with respiratory failure, the usual clinical manifestations of pulmonary emboli (symptoms, signs, chest x-ray film, electrocardiogram, and changes in arterial blood gas levels) frequently are already present, due to the severe underlying pulmonary disease, and any superimposed manifestations of pulmonary emboli are often inapparent. In this group under study, the ventilation/perfusion lung scan correlated poorly with pulmonary angiographic results and with examinations at autopsy; the scan generally was inadequate to rule in or rule out pulmonary emboli. Again, this was due to the distortion of both ventilation and perfusion by the severe underlying pulmonary disease. Currently, pulmonary angiographic studies remain the only reliable technique to confirm or exclude pulmonary emboli in patients with respiratory failure.