I was not yet a fully fledged wrestling fan when Owen Hart fell to his death on a live televised WWF event 19 years ago today, but it was the kind of thing that would come up in school every now again, as you wandered the yard with your classmates. How on earth did that happen? Why? I couldn't fathom it, and as I've moved into adulthood, I find it hard to comprehend even now.
The accident happened on May 23, 1999 in Kansas City, Missouri during the Over the Edge pay-per-view event. Hart was due to face The Godfather in a bout for the Intercontinental Championship under the guise of the Blue Blazer, a buffoonish superhero type character who would perform high-flying moves in his matches.
As part of a dramatic entrance, the Blazer would be lowered via harness and grapple line into the ring from the rafters of Kemper Arena. The idea was to lower him to just above ring level, at which time he would pretend to become entangled, then release himself from the safety harness and fall flat on his face for comedy.
In order to complete the entrance for full comedic effect, a quick-release mechanism was necessary. In the most unfortunate circumstances imaginable, it didn't work and Hart fell approximately 78 feet, landing chest first on the top rope before falling into the ring.
Attempts were made to resuscitate Hart, he was declared dead at TMC in Kansas City and the cause of death was later revealed to be internal bleeding from blunt force trauma. It's been argued since, that the company's blatant disregard for safety protocol in allowing Hart to use the rig, ultimately cost him his life.
As one can imagine, the impact of the accident reached far beyond just the wrestling world, making national news broadcasts in the United States.
Referee Jim Korderas came away with a lucky escape that night. He was in the ring that night as it happened and later said he felt the rope snap back and "something brushed off my head", thinking that someone from the crowd had possibly thrown something in his direction. To his absolute horror he looks to his side to see Owen Hart laying lifeless on the canvass, unresponsive to the official's shouts and calls. "A million things were racing through my mind, I didn't know what to think," he told The Steve Austin Show podcast.
Stone Cold himself had a complicated relationship with Owen Hart. Although they got on well for much of their time together in WWF, Austin broke his neck after the Canadian-American performed a botched piledriver on him during their match at Summerslam '97. In his autobiography Austin says that he could never quite bring himself to laugh at Hart's jokes in the same way ever again.
When Owen Hart passed away though, Stone Cold gave him a simple yet perfect tribute on the next edition of Monday Night Raw.
Three years previous to Owen Hart's fatal attempt to enter the ring on a harness, Shawn Michaels had done so successfully on the grandest stage of them all, WrestleMania XII. Although it's somewhat ruined by Vince McMahon's shite commentary, it has since become one of the most iconic images in WWE history.
Although pro-wrestling is very much a worked sport and the outcomes are all pre-determined, Owen Hart's tragic death is a reminder that that there are real lives behind the characters we know and love in the squared circle.
Main image via WikiCommons.