Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Televised Death of Owen Hart

Post by Travis Taylor

May 23, 1999. The crowd at World Wrestling Entertainment's pay-per-view "Over the Edge" was a rabid frenzy of dogs. The audience of 18,350 had already been treated to a night of incredible matches and death-defying stunts. 

The best part? The night was still young.

Owen Hart stood in the rafters of the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, high above the ring where he was getting set to wrestle. He was quickly changing from his street clothes into his wrestling gear: a blue outfit and mask, along with a blue cape. 
Owen Hart. Photo by WWE.com

He was nervous and afraid of heights. But he also knew that what he was about to do would be spectacular. The writers for the show had come up with a special entrance for Hart. 

Performing as his alter-ego, The Blue Blazer, Hart was to be lowered from the rafters to the ring, 78 feet below. He had practiced the stunt earlier in the day with Bobby Talbert, a rigger from Orlando, and Talbert's assistant. Everything had gone great.

Hart eased himself off the rafter he was on and hung suspended in the air, holding on to the railing with his hands. The pretaped backstage skit began to roll on the giant Titan Tron screen and Hart began his decent. 

He had only gone a few feet when he reached to fix his cape. Without warning his safety harness released. 

Hart fell.

The at-home audience was watching the backstage skit and never saw the fall. But those in attendance gasped in horror as Hart tumbled from the rafters at 50 miles per hour. At roughly 73 feet per second, his fall took just over one second. His head smacked the padded, but unmoving, top of one of the ring posts. His chest and left arm struck a turnbuckle. His body flipped back and landed on the mat in a broken heap.

The television cameras stayed on the crowd as paramedics worked on the still breathing Hart. WWE commentator Jim Ross calmly told the viewing audience that what was happening was real and not part of any storyline. Moments later Hart was loaded onto a stretcher, taken up the ramp, and transported to nearby Truman Medical Center.

He was pronounced dead on arrival.

He had shattered his left arm, severed an aorta which filled his lungs full of blood, and crushed several internal organs.

All of it on live television.

Hart's widow, Martha, sued the WWE for the wrongful death of her husband. She eventually won the suit and was awarded $18 million in damages. The money was used to start the Owen Hart Foundation, to help families of sick children deal with the sometimes-extreme financial hardship of hospital stays.

Full details of the trial and the reasons for the fall have never been released. However, much speculation is on the harness itself. 

On the wrestling site Rajah.com, Carlton Doerner wrote that the harness had a quick release strap that simply needed a slight tug in order to open. WWE management apparently liked the idea because they didn't want Hart to struggle with the release in the middle of the ring.

According to Answers.com, Hart's harness did not have any of the required safety backups in place. It only needed six pounds of pressure to release and Hart weighed 225 pounds.

There is no official video of the event and no footage of Hart's fall is known to exist. It was simply too quick and no one expected it. However, several websites have photos of Hart walking the rafters just before his entrance.

Here is what the television audience saw that night. (Click here if you can't view the video on your device.)

Hart was born on May 7, 1965 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. His father was Stu Hart, a legend in the wrestling business and Hart's transition to the sport was only natural. He debuted on May 30, 1986, and began wrestling with promotions across the world. 

In the fall of 1988, he joined his brother Bret Hart in the WWE and found great success.
In the late 1990s, the WWE, then known as the WWF, began to promote its product as the "Attitude Era." The new style featured high-risk stunts, outrageous entrances and interviews, and a slide to a more adult content. Injuries became more frequent in an attempt to keep raising the bar. Wrestlers such as "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson came to prominence during this time.

After Hart's death, the tone of wrestling began to change. There was a noticeable shift back to a more family-friendly type of program. The stunts were pulled back and an entrance from the rafters was never again attempted. 

It was as if the WWE had taken Hart's catchphrase straight to heart: Enough is enough and it's time for a change.

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