An article by Mike Mooneyham
Published May 25, 1999
It was meant to have been a stunt – just another crowd-pleasing gimmick designed to embellish a World Wrestling Federation show. The tragic result was a horrific spectacle that shocked a national pay-per-audience and a sellout crowd of more than 18,000 at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo.
Owen Hart, 33, a member of one of pro wrestling’s most legendary families, plunged 80 feet to his death Sunday night during the WWF’s “Over the Edge” pay-per-view. Hart, who was wrestling under his alter ego “Blue Blazer” character, fell as he was being dropped from the ceiling as part of a superhero ring entrance. He reportedly was being lowered from the rafters on a guide when the cable snapped, dropping him four stories. Some witnesses reported the cable snapped; others said it appeared Hart was somehow disconnected from it, saying his head snapped backward when he hit one of the turnbuckles inside the ring.
Police Sgt. Patrick Witcher said investigators were trying to determine what went wrong.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]“From the information we have so far, it had something to do with the harness system,” Witcher said Monday. “Everyone’s talking about something happening with the rigging, but it’s still under investigation.”
Kansas City Fire Department spokesman Jim Bradbury said the harness carrying Hart was not properly attached.
“He was up on some scaffolding above the ring,” Bradbury said. “They were going to lower him down on some sort of cable, and apparently the cable wasn’t hooked up. He landed in the ring.”
An autopsy was planned.
Hart, the younger brother of WCW star Bret “Hitman” Hart, fell as his match introduction was about to begin. The fall was not shown on television. The TV audience was being shown a montage of Hart’s clips and an interview when he fell and the camera panned through the crowd while paramedics worked him.
The 13-year veteran was given CPR inside the ring as the packed arena fell into silence. Kansas City paramedics and WWF officials spent nearly 15 minutes trying to resuscitate Hart before removing him from the ring.
“They took him out on stretcher, and a cop was on top of him, riding him like a bull, giving him chest compressions,” said a fan who witnessed the event.
Hart was rushed to a Kansas City hospital where he was pronounced dead.
WWF commentator Jim Ross emphasized to the television audience that Hart’s fall was not an angle, not part of a wrestling storyline, but was a serious real-life accident. Many fans initially believed the accident was just part of the show due to the growing propensity of scripted angles and storylines. The crowd, many of whom not realizing the severity of the spectacle they had just witnessed, burst into applause for the fallen wrestler as he was being taken out.
“I was sitting in the front corner by the ring,” said one fan. “He was moving pretty fast (as he fell). His chin and neck hit the top rope. I really didn’t know if it was legit. I mean, this is wrestling. They do some crazy stuff.”
“We thought it was a doll at first,” said a 15-year-old spectator. “We thought they were just playing with us. We were really shocked when we found out that it was no joke.”
The matches continued despite the shock and confusion backstage. Ross announced before the show ended that Hart had died as a result of the fall. No such announcement was made to the audience at the arena. Several fans told local reporters that they should have stopped the show out of respect for Hart, and some fans left the building after the accident.
“It was disgusting” for them to continue the show, said one fan. “For kids to see that, for this to be so-called family entertainment, for them to continue on as if nothing has happen, is just sad.”
Hart was universally respected among his peers and was considered one of the more polished mat technicians in the profession.
“Owen was one of the nicest and most well-liked guys in our business,” 14-time world champion Ric Flair said Monday. “He was the Arn Anderson of the WWF. He was a great talent and was never a guy who was hard to get along with. He was always willing to do anything that was asked of him.”
“What happened kind of was really a mirror image to a circus going wrong, with someone falling off the high wire, or falling off the trapeze,” WCW’s Chris Jericho said on a live radio show Monday. “That’s the way you can sum up what we do. We’re almost a live-action circus act. And Sunday night one of our guys fell off the high wire, and the net didn’t catch him.”
Former WWF performer Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura said he was deeply saddened by the death, adding, “It is difficult to receive news of a loss of a friend. It is even more difficult to accept when that person dies tragically and at such a young age.”
News of the tragedy traveled fast and put yet another spotlight on the controversial world of professional wrestling. The loss sent shock waves through the wrestling community, especially in the WWF where Hart had performed for most of his career. The company planned on going through with a live, nationally broadcast Raw Monday night at the Keil Center in St. Louis, and was dedicating the show to their fallen star.
“We at the WWF are saddened by the tragic accident that occurred here tonight,” WWF president Vince McMahon said after Sunday night’s show. “We have no answers as to how this happened yet. We will shortly.”
Addded McMahon: “We send our condolences and sympathy to Owen Hart’s family; his wife, Martha; and their two very young children.”
“Wrestlers were openly weeping last night,” a tearful McMahon told a Kansas City television station Monday morning as wrestlers boarded a plane at Kansas City International Airport for St. Louis.
“I didn’t see it, but from what I can gather, somebody slipped up,” Hart’s 83-year-old father, former wrestler and trainer Stu Hart, said from the family home in Calgary, Alberta. “You don’t get up 60 or 70 feet in the air without being properly anchored down. I haven’t talked to Vince McMahon yet, but somebody was careless or missed something or else Owen would still be here. Owen was a pretty careful athlete who wouldn’t have taken unnecessary risks or chances,” said Hart, who added that his son had performed the stunt before.
Hart’s mother, Helen Hart, said she always worried about one of her sons becoming disabled in the ring.
“It’s a dangerous sport in more ways than you can know,” she told a reporter. “I just never thought one of my boys would be killed.”
The Harts were just sitting down to eat in Calgary, Alberta, when they got the news, said Owen’s sister, Alison.
“Some wrestling fans called and we didn’t believe that,” she said. “And then his wife called and confirmed he was in trouble, and then about 10 minutes later they called to tell us he was gone.”
Bret Hart canceled a planned appearance Monday night on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in which he had been scheduled to wrestle Kevin Nash.
All seven of Stu Hart’s sons entered professional wrestling, with Owen joining in 1986. The 5-10, 225-pound Owen joined the WWF in 1989 and was the last of Stu Hart’s seven sons to enter the pro ranks.
Early in his career Hart was regarded as one of the top high flyers in the business and teamed with Koko B. Ware as High Energy in the WWF. Hart worked under a mask as The Blue Blazer and used the gimmick as a springboard to success, establishing his own reputation without relying on the family name or the success at that time of The Hart Foundation. Hart also made his mark on the Calgary circuit run by father Stu and carved an international reputation in Japan, Mexico and Europe. He returned to the WWF in 1992 along side brother-in-law Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart as The New Foundation. In recent years Hart went on to headline Wrestlemania against brother Bret and enjoyed memorable programs with Shawn Michaels and brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith. Most recently he held the WWF tag-team belts with Jeff Jarrett.
Owen, despite the well-documented split between brother Bret and Vince McMahon following the 1997 Survivors Series, remained in the WWF while his brother jumped to WCW.
“The agreement (with McMahon) has got to be based on trust now,” Hart said in a 1998 interview. “For me, I’ve been smart all my life, with my money and everything else. I never blew it or did anything stupid. I’m working on trust, but my life isn’t depending on it if I had a problem. It won’t be my loss.
“There are some people in this business who live from day to day and can’t exist without this business because it’s their livelihood. Fortunately for me, I enjoy it and plan to stay in it for a few more years, but if something came up where I got burnt, my life wouldn’t be over. There’s no gun to my head. But by the same token, I’ve made an agreement with Vince. This thing isn’t going to work if we’re suspicious of one another. If I walk around thinking I can’t trust him, it isn’t going to work. I have trust and I have good feelings.”
Hart was considered a moderate who, like brother Bret, wasn’t an advocate of the company’s hard-core direction.
“I’ve had disagreements not with bookers or anything like that – but with production guys who say the hard-core stuff is what sells,” Hart said last year. “I’ve always been a big advocate that wrestling sells. When production guys came up to me after I wrestled Shawn Michaels at the Nassau Coliseum, they said we need more of that. To me, I can let my son watch something like that.
“I guess people who are checking the ratings points will make the final decisions. If somebody else was in an outhouse getting beat up and the ratings were high, I suppose they’ll stick with that stuff since the fans are the ones watching. Our people are making decisions based on the ratings. To me, it’s a travesty. What we’re called is wrestling, and that’s what sells.”
Hart won a number of WWF titles during his career, including four tag-team championships, two Intercontinental titles and a European championship.