15 Tragic Details About The Death Of Owen Hart

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Gourav Das
Gourav Das is an irreverent copywriter and business writing coach. He's on a mission to stamp out gobbledygook and to make boring business blogs sparkle.

On May 23, 1999, the WWE’s Owen Hart fell to his death in a tragic accident.

May 23, 1999 is a day will that continue to weigh heavy on the hearts of wrestling fans until the end of time. On this fateful evening, the WWE was running their pay-per-view Over the Edge right in the midst of the Attitude Era. This period of time was the most fruitful that the company has ever experienced, and the combination of incredible in-ring talent and cutting-edge booking brought the sport to heights that had never been reached. The company was entrenched in a war with rival promotion WCW, and was well on its way to beating their foe. The evening started out like any other, but disaster would strike, and the wrestling world would never be the same again.

A planned stunt involving wrestler Owen Hart went terribly wrong, and Hart would plunge down to meet the ropes around the ring, causing injuries that would take his life. Hart, the younger brother of wrestling legend Bret Hart, was a well-respected and well-liked member of the locker room, and had done some incredible in-ring work during his professional career. His teaming with the likes of Yokozuna and Davey Boy Smith yielded immense success, and his run as a singles competitor was phenomenal.

Hart left behind an incredible wrestling legacy that continues to live on to this very day. He is often cited as an influence for younger talent, and his body of work is readily available to watch on the WWE Network. If you’ve never seen Owen Hart wrestle, you are truly missing out on something spectacular. While some of the events surrounding his death are well-known, these 15 little-known facts are sure to provide you with a clearer look at the night when professional wrestling lost a legend.

His Quick Release Lever Was Not Approved

There has been a lot of speculation about the events surrounding Owen’s death, and the quick release lever is typically a focal point of discussion. In the past, the company had always adhered to consultation about safety in regard to these types of stunts. Owen’s stunt provided a different situation. He was said to have needed to use the quick release switch to avoid complications from releasing himself from the harness once he was in the ring. While this may have seemed like a good idea in theory, the new rig caused massive problems, and ultimately led to the death of Owen Hart.

The rig that Hart used that fateful night had no backup cable and was not in line with standard practices. For whatever reason, the company had a blatant disregard for safety in the name of entertainment. Their decision to go against safety protocol ultimately cost Hart his life, and this event remains one of the most tragic moments in wrestling history.

This Was Intended To Be A Gag

Hart’s decision to repel from the rafters was not the first time that he had done the stunt, and was actually meant to provide the crowd of onlookers with a hilarious moment. The first time that Hart had done this, he made it safely to the ground, and then had an immense amount of trouble unlocking the safety hook, leading to a display of buffoonery that kept the crowd laughing. He would have been tangled up momentarily before face planting onto the canvas after fidgeting with the harnesses release lever. This fatal accident was intended to capture that same reaction from the crowd as it had before, but that was not the case when everything went completely wrong.

Seeing the original footage of Hart doing the stunt is bittersweet. While it is funny to see his character embarrass himself in front of the crowd, it also serves as a reminder that Owen lost his life while trying to put a smile on people’s faces.

He Had Been Reprising His Gimmick As The Blue Blazer

Back in the 1980s, Owen Hart was looking to follow his brother Bret into the WWF, and when he finally got his big shot, the company did little to help him. Instead of making him a feasible character, the company instead gave him the gimmick of the Blue Blazer. The Blue Blazer was a superhero character that seemed akin to the company’s over-the-top characters at the time. Unfortunately, the Blue Blazer didn’t amount to much during his initial run with the company, and Hart would eventually leave to pursue greener pastures elsewhere.

However, Hart decided to use the character once again in 1998, and it seemed to work better the second time around. The comedic character had more of an attitude to him, and was a heel during his second run with the company. For older fans of wrestling, seeing Hart give a nod to his humble beginnings was both refreshing and funny.

He Was Booked To Win The Intercontinental Title

Prior to the tragic events of Hart’s death, the night was moving along as scheduled for the company. While many people remember that night for Hart’s death, few seem to remember why it is that he was there in the first place. Now, his Blue Blazer gimmick’s return seemed to be getting some positive feedback, and Hart was actually booked to compete for the company’s Intercontinental Title that evening against fellow wrestler The Godfather. The two were no strangers in the ring, and it would have made for an excellent match. It would eventually be revealed that Hart was in fact slated to win the title that evening.

Two weeks after the accident, Jeff Jarrett would wrestle against The Godfather, and would ultimately defeat him. Jarrett dedicated the win to Owen, since he took his place as champion after Hart’s death. The win would have been Hart’s third reign as the Intercontinental Champion.

He Fell 78 Feet

While waiting in the rafters to drop down and pull off the stunt, Hart had to have been nervous. Yes, it is true that he had performed this stunt to perfection before, but the decision to use a different rig could have caused him to be uneasy about the entire thing. But, being the professional that he was, Hart would overcome his doubts and go through with the stunt, slowly coming down in front of the crowd as a vignette played. But, this is when things would go terribly wrong, and Hart would take his fatal fall. It is said that Hart fell from 78 feet above the ring. Just to put that in perspective, that is nearly equivalent to falling from an 8-story building.

I couldn’t have imagined being up there waiting for the stunt to take place. A great number of people are afraid of heights, and repelling from a height of that magnitude would cripple most with fear.

His Cape May Have Triggered The Release

The decision to use a quick-release lever for Hart’s stunt left virtually no room for error on his part. The release mechanism was said to be incredibly sensitive, and this reason was why the WWE had decided to use it in the first place. Now, as part of the Blue Blazer gimmick, Hart would wear a cape that was fitting for the character. However, his wearing of the cape could have caused a slew of complications while trying to repel from the rafters and could have led to Hart accidentally triggering his own release, falling to an untimely death.

Whether or not the cape was to blame for this remains unknown, and at this point would do very little in providing any sort of closure. If it was a matter of his cape getting in the way and causing him to accidentally trigger the release, then it is a shame that the world lost one of its most talented entertainers because of a wardrobe mishap.

He Didn’t Die On Impact

Given the height from which he fell, it is no surprise that Hart would eventually die from the injuries he sustained. What might take you by surprise, however, is the fact that Owen Hart initially survived the massive fall onto the ropes. That’s right, after plunging from 78 feet onto the ropes, Owen Hart continued breathing as medical personnel rushed to his aid and took him out of the arena. It was the internal bleeding that Hart sustained from the fall that would eventually claim his life on that fateful night.

It is hard to imagine that your average person could have survived that fall. Most people just aren’t in that great of shape. Hart, however, was in phenomenal shape, and that very well could have prolonged his life after the accident. Despite his physical shape, Hart was unable to be revived and would die inside of the Truman Medical Center that evening.

People In The Crowd Saw The Fall

As Hart was in the rafters getting ready to head down to the ring, the crowd that looked on was in the process of watching a vignette that was playing on the jumbotron screen in the arena. It was during this time that Hart would begin his descent to the ring, and eventually lose his life. While it was initially believed that the lights may have been dimmed enough for the crowd to not see the accident, this was apparently false, and a number of onlookers were able to see everything that was going on in the ring as Hart was being helped.

Imagine having been there to witness the horrifying scene of someone plunging nearly 8-stories to their death. There were adults and children in the audience that night, and a lot of people witnessed this tragedy firsthand. For those that were in attendance, I do not doubt that this was a moment in their life that they will remember with great clarity.

Viewers At Home Didn’t See It

Owen Hart’s death happened during a live broadcast, but, thanks to a slight delay, fans at home never had to witness the tragedy that unfolded that evening. While the people that were in attendance had to see Hart fall from nearly 80 feet, people at home were instead shown an interview with Hart as he was being tended to in the ring. Shortly after, Jim Ross addressed the viewers at home about what had happened that night. Had it not been for that delay, the footage of Hart’s death would no doubt be around for people to see.

The fact that any single person had to see this unfold is a horrifying thought, but there is some comfort to be found in the fact that people at home didn’t have to witness this as well. Thanks to a slight delay and some quick reactions from the production crew, viewers at home were spared from seeing a live death on television.

The WWE Continued The Event After His Accident

The fact that this happened is incredibly disappointing, but nevertheless, here we are. After Hart took his fatal fall, he was immediately tended to by medical personnel and was rushed to a nearby hospital. During the event, legendary commentator Jim Ross would deliver the crushing news of Hart’s death to viewers watching at home. Despite the announcement of his tragic death, the WWE elected to finish the event as planned, never even announcing to the crowd the magnitude of what they had seen. This remains one of the most controversial aspects in the death of Owen Hart, and rightfully so. The company’s efforts should be applauded, but this is outrageous.

On one hand, I understand that they didn’t want to cause a stir in the attending crowd. But, the company should have been more tactful in the way that they approached the situation. When looking back on the events that took place that night, this will no doubt always be looked at as a colossal mistake.

Hart’s Family Sued The WWE

Shortly after Owen’s death, the Hart family needed time to mourn the events that took place that fateful night. Given the nature of his death, Owen’s family elected to sue the WWE a few weeks after the tragedy occurred. The family sought compensation for the fallen Owen, and the case would last for about a year and a half. Their case rested on the fact that the poorly-planned stunt and lack of a backup safety device were directly responsible for Owen’s death.

While I am sure that having the case drag on for such a long time was immensely painful for the family, they ultimately did the right thing by pursuing the lawsuit. Dealing with the loss of a loved one is one of life’s more difficult moments, and having an event like this drag on for about 18 months had to have been emotionally taxing for the Hart family.

It Was Settled Out Of Court

For all of the heartache that the family endured following the loss of Owen Hart, the case lasted far longer than it should. The company that manufactured the latch that Hart used that night was initially on trial as well, though they were later dismissed. This left the WWE as the sole bearer of responsibility for the death of the legendary performer. Ultimately, the WWE and the Hart family would settle their business out of court. Though the numbers vary, it is rumored that Owen’s wife received up to $30 million for the death of her husband. She also maintains his likeness rights for merchandise and video games.

Hart’s wife would eventually use some of the money that the WWE gave her to set up the Owen Hart Foundation. Since its inception, the foundation has been involved in a number of different projects and continues to make a positive impact in the world. It is the perfect legacy to such a respected performer.

Raw Is Owen

The night after each WWE pay-per-view event is used as a platform for WWE Raw to address the storylines and matches that played out the night before, but back in May of 1999, Raw Is War would air a very special episode. Given the nature of the pay-per-view, the WWE used their hallmark show to pay tribute to their fallen brother in a special episode titled Raw Is Owen. During the episode, Owen was honored with a 10-bell salute, and his colleagues spoke candidly about what a truly remarkable person he was. There were very few matches on the episode, leaving plenty of time for the WWE and its performers to show their brother some respect.

To this day, Raw Is Owen remains one of the most-viewed episodes in the history of the show. Hearing what these people had to say about Owen is truly remarkable. When a person passes, people have nice things to say, though they are usually blown out of proportion. For Owen Hart, all of what was said seemed true and genuine, and you can tell that he was truly respected.

Footage Exists, But Will Never Be Released

That’s right, footage of Hart’s tragic fall from the rafters was in fact captured by WWE cameras that were filming the event, but don’t expect to see it making its way around the Internet any time soon. With a tragedy of this magnitude, the WWE has taken every precaution possible to ensure that the Hart family and Owen’s wife will never have to relive this awful moment. The WWE maintains possession of the footage, but it is buried deep in their archives with instructions to not release or tamper with it. This fact has done little in stopping people from digging deep into Internet archives for the tragic footage.

The WWE’s efforts in keeping this footage away from the hands of casual viewers should be applauded. To this day, there is no footage of the tragedy for people to see, and the WWE’s delicate handling of the footage is directly responsible for this.

The Footage Has Been Edited Out On The WWE Network

Since its inception, the WWE Network has provided wrestling fans with an unfathomable amount of past wrestling events in the way that they were broadcast. Outside of their own events, the WWE is also able to show NXT, WCW, and ECW events, making their expansive library of footage a dream come true for fans. There are very few incidents that have caused the WWE to alter the footage that they allow fans to watch, and Owen Hart’s tragic death is one of them. If you’re trying to see the unedited event, I’m here to let you know that you are completely out of luck. The WWE heavily edited the now-infamous event, but they do pay tribute to Hart at the beginning of it.

Naturally, it is completely understandable that the WWE would do this. This tragedy isn’t something that should be on display for the world to see. Good on the WWE for respecting the Hart family and Owen’s legacy by editing the event.

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