On May 23rd, 1999, the wrestling world mourned the loss of “The King of Harts” Owen Hart. People behind the scenes on this unthinkable day reflect on the tragedy, answering the all-important questions: What went wrong? And why did Vince McMahon let the show go on?
The Death of Owen Hart – What Really Happened, From Those Who Were There
Five months before his tragic death, Owen Hart opened up to Slam Wrestling about his desire to soon leave wrestling:
"When my contract is up, I’m out of wrestling. I’ve made plans. I’ve been smart with my fiscal affairs. Financially, I’ll be set. I really want to devote a lot of time to my family. I’ve bought some property on a lake. I plan on doing a lot of boating and fishing. I want to continue to stay in shape. And who knows, I might do ten weeks a year in Japan. Something just to motivate me to keep in shape, keep involved a little bit but not have to deal with the politics, the pressures that are so intense right now. I’ve paid my dues for twelve years now. If I continue for five more, that’s seventeen years working at a pretty hard clip. I think that at that point, my family, my wife, and my kids, have been compromised enough.
"I would like to kind of just disappear from wrestling fans and stuff. I don’t want to forget the fans and what they’ve done. They’ve supported me and stuff, but at the same time, I’d like to just — I don’t want to be hanging on like one of these wrestlers who’s sixty years old, saying, ‘Hey, I’m a wrestler.’ Let it go. Make your money out of it and get on. Going out and performing- it’s an art. I’d like fans to remember me as a guy who would go out and entertain them, give them quality matches. Not just the same old garbage every week…"
The Stunt Which Led to the Death of Owen Hart
VINCE RUSSO (via PM in the AM Boston):
"The whole idea just started so innocently. We had brought back Owen’s old gimmick, The Blue Blazer. He was meant to be like a superhero, but a spoof on a superhero – to really get over the comedic genius of Owen Hart. It was probably the Friday before the show. The show’s already written – I get a call from Steve Taylor [WWF’s V.P of Operations]. He goes, ‘Look, I just got a call from the people who rappelled Sting from the rafters [in rival WCW]. They said they’re gonna be at our pay-per-view. They wanna know if there is anything they may be able to do for the WWE.’ So while he’s telling me this, I’m looking through the show, and I see Owen. And I’m saying, ‘Well, that’d really elevate Owen’s character, that’d be something really special and cool for Owen. What if we rappelled The Blue Blazer?’
"So now during the day [of the pay-per-view], Owen Hart comes up to me, and what he said was, ‘I rehearsed rappelling from the ceiling, but when I rappel down, it takes me a while to get my harness off. If [Owen’s opponent] The Godfather is in the ring first, and then I rappel, and I gotta take this harness off, The Godfather could pummel me…’ See, everyone [at that time] was thinking, ‘Real, real, real, reality,’ so he said, ‘Could my entrance come first, THEN have The Godfather come out?’ I said, ‘Owen, no problem – I’ll make the changes, no problem…’ And that was it. That was the extent of our conversation."
VINCE MCMAHON (via Playboy):
"Earlier that day, my son Shane and I were out by the ring, walking through a physical bit we had to do that night, and I was shocked and surprised by Owen. He was descending to the ring in typical Owen fashion, yelling and raising hell. He was one of the biggest ribbers – as we call them in the business – a practical joker, a prankster. One time he and Davey Boy Smith put goats in my office, and they made sure those goats were well fed beforehand. You can imagine how it stunk. But that’s how it is in the WWF, and how it was with Owen. So many jokes…"
JIM CORNETTE (via Kayfabe Kickout, H/T: WrestlingInc.com):
"Vince Russo didn’t feel that [Owen] was exciting enough as himself and wanted to make him a ‘superhero,’ so he came up with the idea of doing that. Owen wasn’t comfortable with it, but he had already turned down a few things that he wasn’t comfortable with, and he didn’t want to be Negative Nancy and be known as the guy who kept saying ‘no,’ so he went along with it, and it didn’t turn out well…
"Guys can get hurt. They’re risking their lives, but that [stunt] was completely unnecessary. It was something that Owen was asked to do that he was not comfortable with. Still to this day, I blame Vince Russo, like a lot of people do, because, for those who don’t know, Owen, instead of being able to do a normal entrance into the ring and have a wrestling match, which is dangerous enough, they decided that he would make a superhero entrance and be lowered into the ring in this outlandish costume that Russo had booked him to be in and was being lowered by a rigging company that didn’t check the rigging or whatever and there were lawsuits…"
NOTE: Owen Hart had already performed a variation of the stunt at an earlier date. With the standard (safer) full harness and slow-release clip, the stunt took too long to disengage and, it was decided by all involved, made for ‘bad television.’ For the pay-per-view ‘Over The Edge’ where the fatal accident occurred, it was decided that the stunt would be done using a ‘nautical clip’ which was "designed expressly for the quick release of a sailboat mast." It is alleged that several stunt coordinators were asked to test it, and all but one refused, declaring it "crazy."
What Happened Right After Owen Hart Fell
REFEREE JIMMY KORDERAS (via Why It Ended):
"I heard yelling, and I heard people saying that it was [Owen yelling to get out of the way]. I can’t confirm that, but I wouldn’t doubt it knowing the kind of guy he was. He was coming down and probably saw — a lot of people probably don’t realize that right before that incident happened, there was a hardcore match, and there was a lot of debris scattered in the ring. As we were clearing stuff, I was actually moving toward the corner where Owen fell.
"I didn’t find out until the next day from Jerry Lawler. He said that he saw the last 15-20 feet of Owen’s fall, and he thought, ‘My goodness, he’s going to fall on Jimmy!’ I was apparently that close to him."
"I was backstage in my office when I heard. It happened when the arena was dark, so nobody saw the fall…"
THE ROCK (via "The Rock Says…"):
"I was backstage in the dressing room, going over the details of my match with Triple H and Chyna. We were talking, moving around, trying to figure out how to make the match memorable, when Sergeant Slaughter walked into the room and said, ‘Owen is hurt…’ I looked at Hunter, then looked at Sarge and said, ‘Oh, come on. Are you serious, or are you ribbing?’ Owen was known for his pranks, and I thought maybe this was just another example of his twisted sense of humor. ‘No,’ Sarge said. ‘It looks pretty bad. They’re working on him in the middle of the ring…’
"I went straight to the curtain. As I reached the Gorilla Position, where everyone was gathered, I could see the shock on their faces, the disbelief. People were crying, hugging. And then it hit me: This is real. I walked up to the curtain and looked out. The EMTs were working on Owen in the middle of the ring, giving him CPR. The crowd was on its feet, absolutely silent.
"[I thought] ‘My God… that’s my friend, I have to go out there.’ I turned around. Vince McMahon was standing there watching everything on the monitors. He was in shock, just like the rest of us. ‘Vince,’ I said, ‘I want to go out there – what do you think?’ Vince just stared at me, with a look on his face that seemed to say, Rock, that’s entirely up to you. After a few moments, though, Vince spoke. ‘If you go out there, Rock, those people are really going to react to you. They may think this whole thing is a work.’
"So I waited anxiously, helplessly by the curtain, until they wheeled Owen through on a stretcher. One of the EMTs was still straddling Owen, pumping his chest, desperately administering CPR. I walked alongside them and said a prayer as I looked at Owen’s face. Then I helped them load the stretcher into the ambulance. I climbed into the passenger side of the vehicle and looked in the back where they were still working furiously on Owen. I kept praying that God would save my friend’s life…"
How Family and Friends Found out Owen Hart Had Died
BRET HART (via Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling):
"I found out on the plane. I was flying to do the Jay Leno show. You don’t ever want to find out about a tragedy on an airplane, trust me on that one. That was really hard. There was nowhere to go…"
ERIC BISCHOFF (via Controversy Creates Cash):
"I was watching an NBA game when someone called me to tell me that Owen had just died at a WWE pay-per-view. He’d fallen to his death during a stunt where he was supposed to rappel down to the ring. I was shocked, and I didn’t believe it. A couple of months before, as a twisted practical joke, one of the wrestlers in WCW had made a prank call claiming that Bret’s father had passed away. I’d been informed and told Bret he needed to call home. Bret did so, finding out that it wasn’t true at all. It was a pretty disgusting joke, or rib, as the wrestlers liked to call it. So you can imagine what went through my mind this time. So I placed three or four calls to people I knew I could trust. They confirmed that Owen had really died. Bret was already in the air on his way to meet me [in LA]. I knew I had to go to the airport and tell him. As it turned out, I wasn’t the first…"
JULIE HART [Bret’s wife at the time]:
"My boys and I just came back from Ottawa, we were just pulling up to the driveway and my sister called and she said, ‘Julie, something happened to Owen – I don’t know what’s going on…’ I ran into the house called up Stu (Owen’s father), and I could tell it was not good because I could hear crying in the background. Helen was too upset to come to the phone. It was like being in a dream wondering, ‘When am I going to wake up?’"
JBL (via his Facebook page, H/T: WrestlingInc.com):
"Owen dressed with Ron and I that day in Kansas City. It was a small dressing room, so we were there during all the discussions about the stunt. I remember going in and telling Undertaker, who was going over his match [with Austin], that Owen was dead…"
"I was on my way to LAX, and I was flying [to Greenville, SC]. We were doing a Monday Nitro, and I was scheduled to come out of the ceiling that night. My wife called me and told me. She said, ‘Somebody died, and I think it was Owen Hart. And you’re not gonna believe this, but he died coming out of the ceiling on a cable.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me…’"
Was Vince McMahon Continuing the Show After the Death of Owen Hart the Right Thing to Do?
Chaos ensued after Owen Hart fell, but the show went on. Hear how his family felt about it and from the wrestlers who were there. Was the decision by Vince McMahon and the then-World Wrestling Federation the right one?
MARTHA HART [Wife of Owen Hart] (via Broken Harts: The Life and Death of Owen Hart):
"As he lay dying in the ring, he struggled to live for our children and me. After he lost his fight for life, they just scooped him up and ordered the next match out. Where’s the humanity? Owen was a man of many faces, but I knew the true Owen. I felt I was the only one who really knew him, so believe me when I say I would know exactly what he would and wouldn’t want. Would he have wanted the show to go on? Absolutely not."
"I actually know first-hand from the wrestlers involved that they wheeled my dead brother right past all the wrestlers and actually pushed them out the door and said, ‘Go…go…go – you’re on…’ I think that’s really insensitive. Really cold.
"Owen would NOT have wanted the show to go on. I think if you look at anyone with any common sense in their family, no one would want the show to go on. And I think if Vince McMahon had dropped [his son] Shane McMahon from the ceiling and he splattered on the mat, I don’t think he would have scraped him off the mat and sent the next match out…"
"Knowing Owen as the performer he was, it is my belief that he would have wanted the show to go on. I didn’t know if it was the right decision. I just guessed that it was what Owen would want…"
"It’s easy for us to say afterward, ‘Well, the show should have stopped…’ I was kind of on the fence with that. I kind of liken it a little bit to a Nascar race, where the race continues even after a tragic accident. Again, it’s a tough call. I’m just glad I’m not the one who had to make that call."
"I felt completely numb. And now, somehow, we had to deal with the task of going out there and performing. Triple H and I talked about the rest of our match, tried to finish putting things together, but it was almost impossible because we were so worried. Two minutes before we were scheduled to hit the stage, we were told that Owen had died.
"I said a prayer for his family. Then – and I know this sounds strange – I started to think about the performance, the show. I thought, ‘Can I really go out there right now?’ Not SHOULD I go out there…but CAN I? Am I capable of performing? I could not remember anything about the match we had designed. My mind was blank. Everything seemed … pointless. But as quickly as I asked myself that question – can I go out there now? – the answer came. I envisioned Owen saying, ‘D.J, you have to go out there…’ I personally felt comfortable with going on because I knew Owen, and I believe Owen would have wanted that.’
"I ended up landing wherever it was we were doing the show, and it was confirmed. Owen had died. I saw the guys that do my set-up, and I said, ‘Guys, you won’t be setting up anything for me tonight. I will not be doing that for two different reasons. Number one: it would be completely disrespectful. Number two: I was too shaken to do something like that.’"
"It was tough because we knew he had died, but no one knew what to do; to wrestle or not to wrestle… Vince was overwhelmed and gave us the option of finishing the show or not wrestling. He told everyone that they could do what they wanted – no pressure. He really didn’t know what to do. No one did. There wasn’t a ‘right’ decision. We decided to wrestle. We wrestled shortly after Owen died."
"We were backstage just chilling, waiting to perform, then all of a sudden word comes to the back that Owen is dead. I was like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Then it was like, ‘Are we gonna work? Or are we gonna stop?’
"Vince made the gutsy call. The show goes on. And he has taken a lot of fire for that, but he would’ve taken a lot of fire if he hadn’t said that. It was a gutsy call on his part. I agree with the call to go on. But it was a very hard night to work. I don’t remember anything about the match [against The Undertaker]. It was probably a stinker. It was extremely hard to work in that ring. My brain was pretty scrambled after receiving news as devastating as that. Everybody loved Owen, including me. It was a tough blow…"
Looking Back After the Death of Owen Hart
"He was hooked up to a make-shift contraption which included a quick-release snap shackle clip meant for the sole purpose of rigging sailboats. The hook that was practically the equivalent of a paper clip released [prematurely]…and Owen fell…"
"His life was centered around his wife, Martha, his one and only childhood sweetheart, and his two beautiful children, Oje and Athena. I recall, so often, in airports, hotel rooms, dressing rooms, long drives on endless highways, his only dream was to come home to his wife and his two children. So many times, I remember he sprinted from the door of the plane, his two carry-on bags in each hand, at a full run, worn out and weary, just to clear customs, through the sliding doors, to their outstretched arms.
"Over the years, I’ve come to see it was a horrible accident, and I don’t think Vince would want something like that to happen. It wouldn’t be advantageous to anyone. We were hurt by that, though. I don’t think my dad ever got over what happened with Owen…"
DIANA HART (Sister of Owen Hart):
"Owen and Martha actually did build their dream home. It was a lovely home that was finally completed and ready for them to start moving into on the day that Owen died. How unfair. I really get upset about that. What a terrible thing to happen. Sometimes life is such a tragedy, and I can only imagine Martha’s grief…"
"Owen NEVER said to me he was concerned about doing it. He never said to me he was afraid. He never said to me he had trepidations about it. But then, there’s that other side. You start thinking about the ‘wrestler’ side of Owen. Was Owen afraid to say he was uncomfortable with this because three weeks ago, he’d told us he was uncomfortable with [another storyline], and the old wrestler mentality kicked in? Would he have been afraid to lose his spot?"
"Being so close to it, it was something that I had to deal with, and it took me a long time to come to grips with it. But at the same time, it’s still there. I still think about it to this day. Unfortunately, it’s something that’s- I don’t want to say ‘haunting’ because that’s not the right word; it’s just something that’s going to live with me forever. It just puts everything into perspective, you know? You do so much for the business, and you try to do your best, but some things are more important than the business."
"Believe it or not, I was not there. That was actually the first WWF pay-per-view that I had missed in about five years because I was preparing to move from Connecticut to Louisville. I was like everybody else, sitting at home watching it live as it happened. Obviously, the incident was not aired on television because it was, fortunately, in a videotaped replay segment that it happened. But when the camera came back in the arena and Jim Ross was trying to cover basically for why there was no action going on and that there was somewhat of a pall over the proceedings. He didn’t know exactly what had happened, so he was trying to choose his words carefully. I knew instantly that something was wrong, but we didn’t know exactly until some time afterward what exactly had happened…"
JIM ROSS (via Ron’s WWE Site):
"Being at ringside the night he fell [and announcing live on air that he had died] was the toughest thing I ever did. To this day, I’ve still never seen the tape. I was pretty numb. Everyone was in shock that night. I still have nightmares about it. Owen was as warm-hearted as any human being I have ever known. He loved to laugh, and he loved to make other people laugh. He had a great spirit, a good soul, and a good heart…"
"It was, of course, one of those situations where you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If you go on with the show, you’re going to be criticized by people who think you’re being insensitive or disrespectful. And if you cancel the show…well, you’ve got a packed arena and 500,000 people across the country who have paid forty or fifty bucks for the pay-per-view. And some of those people are going to be pissed. That’s just the way it is. Either way, all of the blame is going to be placed on Vince McMahon…"
TRIPLE H (via an interview with Peter Rosenberg):
"Owen was a great guy. He didn’t take the business too seriously. He didn’t take anything too seriously – except his family. And he kept a lot of his life personal. Owen saw this [just] as a career where he could make some money, take care of his family. Then he’d was done with it. But he was a good friend to a lot of the guys, very funny, always playing a joke on somebody. I’ve been in the ring with Owen, and he was unbelievable- an unbelievable talent. So much so that sometimes he would go out and have a bad match on purpose to make himself laugh. Do you know what I mean? Because he would think it was funny…"
"When he was alive, nobody had a bad word to say about Owen. He didn’t run around on his wife. He had beautiful kids. They must have needed a first-class angel up there because they got one…"
"I don’t think Bret ever really came back from his brother’s death. Even though he wrestled for [WCW] a few months later, he was injured during Starrcade ’99 and soon after retired…"
Be sure not to miss these related articles on our site:
- Former WWE Photographer Tom Buchanon Details What Went Wrong the Night Owen Hart Passed Away
- The Final Days of OWEN HART
- Owen Hart Talks About His Career
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Some of the quotes used in this article were compiled by Matt Pender and shared here with thanks to our friends over at ‘Wrestling’s Glory Days’ Facebook page.