May 23rd, 1999
Courtesy of MSNBC
Police Still Investigating WWF Death - Stunned Crowd Watched As 'Blue Blazer' plunged 90 feet..
This was not the first time that pro wrestler Owen Hart was making his entrance into the ring by being lowered from the rafters as the high-flying "Blue Blazer," with the feathers of his sky-blue costume fluttering in the arena lights. But Sunday night, something went wrong.
The 34-year-old member of a legendary Canadian wrestling family fell 90 feet from the ceiling of Kemper Arena. His head hit a padded turnbuckle, a metal coupling that holds the ring's ropes together, and snapped backward. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Hart's death happened in front of 16,200 fans in the arena, and many thought the fall was part of the staged theatrics that have helped fuel the explosion of popularity in pro wrestling in recent years.
The World Wrestling Federation's pay-per-view national TV audience was watching archive footage and did not see Hart fall.
Homicide detectives on Monday were inspecting the rigging that was to lower Hart by cable from the arena catwalk and talking to the stagehands to determine what went wrong, police spokesman Floyd Mitchell said.
Mitchell said the cable did not break, and detectives believe something went wrong when Hart's harness was being hitched to the cable.
WWF President Vince McMahon Jr. said he believes Hart may have accidentally pulled a release mechanism.
The WWF is one of the biggest draws on cable and pay-per-view TV, but critics say the matches often are sexist, homophobic and violent. The WWF admits its events are more entertainment than sport.
McMahon said WWF wrestlers will stop performing the aerial move that killed Hart, but said other stunts will continue.
"Stunts like this are performed at major sporting events on a routine basis in Hollywood," he said. "We compete with Hollywood for entertainment."
The WWF canceled plans to replay the tape of Sunday's pay-per-view program on Tuesday and Thursday. It also called off upcoming live events in Peoria, Ill.; Winnipeg, Manitoba; Hamilton, Ontario; Montreal and Ottawa.
But a WWF event went on as planned Monday night in St. Louis, where a crowd of 19,000 jammed the Kiel Center for a "Raw is War" show that included a tribute to Hart.
"Out of respect for Owen, knowing the consummate performer he was, I'm sure members of the Hart family would concur with me that he would want the show to go on," McMahon said.
Tears streamed down the faces of many wrestlers, fans, even referees, as 10 bells tolled in Hart's honor and as videotape of him appeared on a huge video screen. Many of the wrestlers wore black armbands with "OH" on them. The crowd chanted "Owen, Owen."
Hart was the youngest son of Stu Hart, a member of Canada's Olympic wrestling team in the 1940s. All seven of Stu Hart's sons went into wrestling, including Bret "The Hitman" Hart, a World Championship Wrestling star who canceled an appearance Monday on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."
Hart's mother, Helen, told the Calgary (Alberta) Herald that she always feared one of her sons would be disabled in the ring.
"It's a dangerous sport in more ways than you can know," she said. "I just never thought one of my boys would be killed."
At 5-foot-11 and 227 pounds, Hart was billed as an acrobatic stuntman who acted as a foil for WWF heavyweights. Hart had been a high-profile character when he broke into wrestling 10 years ago, but he was recast as a plain, straightforward wrestler, in contrast to charismatic personalities such as "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.
"His schtick was he really didn't have one," said Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer newsletter.
Hart had been lowered by cable into the ring before, and other wrestlers have done it dozens of times, Meltzer said. Some audience members initially thought the fall was part of the act.
"We thought it was a doll at first," said Robert McCome, 15. "We thought they were just playing with us. We were really shocked when we found out that it was no joke."
While paramedics attended to Hart, the arena announcer haltingly told the hushed crowd the incident was not scripted. The event resumed about 15 minutes after he was taken away.
"It was still tons of fun," said Barry Bickel, 21. "But that just dampened the whole thing."
Fans watching on TV were told of Hart's death about an hour after it happened, Meltzer said.
Wade Keller, editor of the Pro Wrestling Torch newsletter, said it was the first fatal accident he knew of in U.S. wrestling since 1969, when Mike DiBiase died of a heart attack during a match in Lubbock, Texas.
Alan Schmelzle, general manager of Kemper Arena, said the WWF asked him not to discuss the fall. Local stagehands assisted on the catwalk, but WWF employees were in charge, he said.
Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a former WWF wrestler, called the Harts "a legendary family of wrestling" and said Hart's death was a reminder that wrestling is a tough job.
"Maybe people ought to start thinking about respecting them a little more," Ventura said. "These performers give their heart and soul to their job."
By Marc Ciampa
Pro Wrestler Owen Hart's Unnecessary Death..
The news of Owen Hart's death on Sunday, May 23rd sent shockwaves throughout not only the wrestling world but also the world in general.
It was not because of where the death occurred - right in the middle of the wrestling ring - but the fact that it was completely unnecessary. Owen Hart, who grew up with wrestling in Calgary as his father Stu and brother Bret were both among the greatest wrestlers of their respective eras, was becoming disillusioned with the entire pro-wrestling scene. It was no longer about wrestling, it was about "sports entertainment" and this, unfortunately, is what killed Owen Hart.
His father ran a wrestling school in his basement since before Owen was born but at no time did Stu ever teach his prospective students how to lower themselves into a ring from eight stories high. Unfortunately, Vince McMahon had other ideas. People should have noticed that he was beginning to take things a little bit too far when wrestler Mick Foley (aka "Mankind") fought a cage match several months ago despite a separated shoulder. Another incident included Foley being body slammed from the top of a "cell" fifteen feet into the middle of the ring on a pile of thumbtacks. But it was simply written off as "extreme wrestling." The fans demanded - and got - more. More violence, more theatrics and more showmanship. Eventually, the sport once thought to be wrestling started to become Jerry Springer in tights. Unrecognizable to the man who spent countless hours teaching the finer technical aspects of the sport. A man who no longer has a son.
"He was born into the sport," said Stu, 83. "He was a pretty damn good amateur wrestler, a Canadian college champion. He was also an excellent professional wrestler."
But Stu, along with the rest of the Hart family believed that Owen may have been a sacrifice for Vince McMahon and his constant need to better his competition, World Championship Wrestling "Frankly, wrestling was getting so far out and my poor brother Owen was a sacrifice for the ratings," said Owen's sister Ellie.
Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, who has one of the most respected opinions in professional wrestling, agreed with this sentiment. "They have to go to greater and greater extremes to get the fans going," he said. "It used to be one guy hitting one guy with a chair. Now you have to set them on fire, you have to throw them off the balcony."
Owen's brother Bret, himself a top professional wrestler in the rival federation, said that Owen did not even want to do the stunt initially, "but somehow over the weekend he got talked into doing it again.
"We're professional wrestlers. We take our falls on the mat, inside the ring," he went on to say. "I was never a stuntman, and my brother Owen was never a stuntman."
"He got into the business to wrestle, not to dangle 100 feet off the ground," said Canadian veteran stunt man Steve Lucescu. "I read that he had done this stunt several times, but it's absolutely ridiculous to think that just because he did it several times he was qualified to do it. You might be a stunt performer for 10 years before you even get the chance of doing a big fall like this."
Absolutely, one of the key questions surrounding this incident has been why was Owen Hart forced to plunge eight stories from the roof of the arena into the middle of the ring when he is not a stunt man and has never been a stunt man. However, the most wildly debated topic has been, why did the WWF not cancel the event directly after Owen plunged to his death?
Without a doubt, professional wrestling involves a high amount of skill and expertise but one thing it is not is a true sport. The outcome is pre-determined, as simple as that. There is absolutely no harm - except financially - in stopping the show, refunding tickets to both the live and pay-per-view audience. What McMahon showed by allowing the show to go on - and further claiming Owen would have wanted it that way - was an absolute lack of class.
And, of course, lost in all of this was the man himself. Anyone who ever had the privilege to meet Owen Hart knew that he was as kind a man as you would ever meet. A devoted family man, Owen had hoped to retire at the end of the year when his WWF contract expired. He aspired to be a teacher so he could stay at home with his wife, Martha and two children, Oje, 7 and Athena, 3.
And now, thanks to the high-flying, high-risk ratings war that has become professional wrestling, a wife is left without her husband and two children are now without a father.
Kansas City Star Staff Writer..
Hart Family Settles w/ WWF
KANSAS CITY, Missouri - The family of professional wrestler Owen Hart, who died last year in a stunt gone awry at Kemper Arena, has agreed to settle its wrongful death lawsuit against the World Wrestling Federation, the city of Kansas City and other defendants for an undisclosed sum.
The settlement, which needs court approval before it becomes final, was disclosed in a motion filed by the parties late Friday afternoon with the Missouri Court of Appeals.
The appeals court was scheduled to hear oral arguments today on the WWF's allegation that the plaintiffs' lawyers had sought to influence witness testimony by promising Hart's siblings a share of any damage award in the case. The motion filed on Friday asked the court to continue or suspend the arguments pending approval of the settlement.
The 34-year-old Hart, known to WWF fans as the Blue Blazer, plunged 78 feet to his death on May 23, 1999, when the quick-release mechanism on his harness opened prematurely as he was being lowered into the ring. The wrestling event was televised live on pay-per-view cable television and was seen around the country.
Three weeks after the accident, Hart's widow, two minor children and parents sued the WWF, Kansas City and other defendants in Jackson County Circuit Court. The 46-count complaint alleged that the stunt was dangerous and poorly planned and that the harness system was defective.
The lawsuit sought unspecified damages.
In response to questions from The Kansas City Star, lawyers for the WWF and the Hart family issued a joint statement Monday saying that the WWF and the Harts "have come to an amicable agreement satisfactory to the parties, and the WWF will now continue the case against the entities which manufactured and sold the stunt equipment involved.
"We are awaiting the court's approval of the settlement, which is expected next week. The terms and conditions of the settlement otherwise speak for themselves."
A WWF attorney, Jerry McDevitt, said, "For the time being, we have agreed to limit our public comment to stating that an agreement has been reached, subject to court approval."
Although the lawyers declined to comment on the settlement's terms, a source close to the settlement negotiations said the WWF has agreed to pay the Hart family $18 million.
Under the settlement, the city -- and taxpayers -- are probably off the hook. The WWF's insurance contracts contain provisions calling for the city to be reimbursed if the city is found liable. Kansas City owns Kemper Arena.
Among other provisions, the settlement requires the Hart family to dismiss their petition before the Missouri Court of Appeals. That petition asked the court to order the WWF to return a disputed document to the Hart family and to bar the WWF from asking witnesses about it.
The Hart family's lawyers, the husband-and-wife team of Gary and Anita Robb, claimed the document was protected by attorney-client privilege and was wrongfully obtained by the WWF. The WWF said the document was an illegal attempt to tamper with witness testimony.
The Robbs asked Hart's 10 siblings to sign the document, but rescinded it after the WWF learned of its existence.
The document called for the siblings to share in any verdict awarded to Hart's parents if the siblings cooperated with the plaintiffs. It further provided that those siblings who cooperated with the WWF would not share in any damage award.
Under Missouri's wrongful death statute, the siblings can't be parties to the case as long as Hart's spouse, children or parents survive him. Because the siblings might have been witnesses in the case, the WWF contended the document was an attempt to buy their favorable testimony.
The siblings were in a position to testify on the issue of how many more years Hart intended to wrestle, which would have gone to the question of his lost earnings.
The Robbs insisted the document was nothing more than an effort to preserve family unity in the face of what they said were the WWF's attempts to negotiate a quick and cheap settlement with Hart's parents.
The squabble over the document threatened to divert attention from the underlying wrongful death lawsuit, which, besides the WWF and Kansas City, named 11 other defendants, including WWF Chairman Vince McMahon, the companies that manufactured or sold the harness system and the four riggers who set up the fatal stunt.
The lawsuit was filed by Hart's widow, Martha Hart; the Harts' two children, then ages 7 and 3; and Hart's parents, Stu and Helen Hart. All of the Hart family members live in Calgary, Alberta.
The settlement, if approved, would not end the litigation surrounding Hart's death. By saying that it will "continue the case" against the manufacturers and sellers of the rigging device, the WWF has signaled its intention to sue the companies.