The tragic death of Owen Hart was re-examined on the REELZ network as part of its ‘Autopsy’ series.
While one of the biggest stories in the history of professional wrestling, the details of the stunt gone wrong is left to those that have sought out the police report from the Kansas City Police Department or Martha Hart’s excellent book, Broken Harts, which was released over twenty years ago.
The episode of ‘Autopsy’ included new interviews with Hart’s widow Martha and children, Oje and Athena along with family members Ross, Bruce & Alison Hart, reporter & former WWE writer Kevin Eck, and former tag partner Jeff Jarrett – the latter providing the perspective of someone in the arena and around Owen during his final hours.
The premise of the show sees Dr. Michael Hunter take a well-known deceased celebrity and study the circumstances behind their death and try to draw a conclusion as to the direct causes while painting a biographical sketch of the subject.
Hart’s cause of death was blunt force trauma to the chest after severing his aorta, following a 78-foot fall from the top of Kemper Arena where he had been tasked with repelling from the ceiling in his Blue Blazer character.
Beyond one fatality, it was somewhat of a miracle there were no additional people affected. The original plan called for Max Mini to be attached to Hart for the stunt but was called off earlier in the day.
As Hart’s 229-pound body fell to the ring from the rafters, he narrowly brushed past referee Jimmy Korderas, who was left with a bump on his head and would seek counseling that the company assisted him with.
Earlier in the day of May 23rd, several tests were run including rigger Bobby Talbert and assistant Matt Allmen using a 250-pound sandbag as a stand-in for Hart, Allmen descended once, and eventually, Hart did one rehearsal in the afternoon prior to the doors opening for that evening’s ‘Over the Edge’ event.
The first order of business on the show was investigating Hart’s lifestyle and whether any alcohol or drug use could have affected his judgment on the night of his death. This was dispelled with neither found in Hart’s system with Martha remarking that her husband would likely limit his beer intake to 1-2 per year while also noting that Hart did not engage in steroid use during a period where the company was not actively testing its talent unless there was reason to suspect a problem. It was over six years later, that WWE instituted its Wellness Policy following the death of Eddy Guerrero in November 2005.
It was noted that police did not find two unmarked prescription pill bottles in Hart’s hotel room containing Diazepam and Alprazolam, which are used to treat anxiety and insomnia, the latter of which Martha confirmed on camera being an issue that Hart dealt with while on the road. Neither was detected in his system during the autopsy and ruled out as inhibitors for Hart to make a sound judgment.
The crux of the show deals with the rigging choices carried out by head rigger Bobby Talbert, who was being used for the first time by the WWF after not coming to an agreement with Joe Branam, who had previously been outsourced for such stunts in the past, including with Hart the previous year. In Martha’s book, it is outlined how WWF had sought Talbert after believing Brannam was too costly but had also warned the company of the dangers associated with their request for a quicker release to make for a more seamless presentation.
Typically, this stunt had been carried out with the usage of a metal carabiner with backup safety latches involved. The precautionary measures did slow down the release as seen during the many times Sting repelled from arena rafters in WCW and would need to pause upon landing to unhook himself the WWF wanted to eliminate that lag time, and the answer was with a quick release snap shackle – manufactured by Lewmar Inc. and purchased from Amspec Inc.
In the ‘Autopsy’ program, Dr. Hunter confirms past claims that the harness used for Hart could restrict breathing while adding that Hart’s Blue Blazer cape also could have played a role in triggering the quick release too early and failed to utilize a safety or back-up that would be preferred for safety reasons. The snap shackle only required minimum pressure for release (listed as 8.5 pounds of pressure in the episodes, others have stated six pounds)
Besides Hart, those present on the catwalk above Kemper Arena were city riggers James Williams and Jim Vinzant of Local 31 with Matthew Allmen stationed ringside for Hart’s descent.
It set the scene for one of the greatest tragedies and sadly, one that was so preventable on many levels with this episode outlining all the reasons why.
It is a haunting reminder of the risks talents have been requested to take in this industry that is neither protected by the safety measures of an overarching body for the performers nor one that requires certification in the line of high-end stunt work of which Hart’s job description that day certainly would have been categorized as.
While no criminal charges were laid, a wrongful death lawsuit was launched weeks later by Martha Hart with in-laws Stu, Helen & Bret Hart attached as plaintiffs against the World Wrestling Federation, Vince McMahon, and several others deemed responsible by the plaintiffs. The company would countersue Martha to attempt to move the suit to the state of Connecticut, one which does not award punitive damages.
By November 2000, a settlement was reached for a reported figure of $18 million but tore the Hart family apart with many divisions and fractures among the family that sadly, played out in public and left lasting scars.
In his memory, Martha Hart launched the Owen Hart Foundation and has become a celebrated figure for the Foundation’s efforts and for helping many individuals through its contributions.
Until recently, Martha and her family had removed themselves from professional wrestling, leading most to wrongly assume Martha held a vendetta against the industry. Rather, it was Martha’s stance that she would not engage in any business with the company she felt was culpable for the negligence associated with Owen’s death.
In 2018, Martha proudly displayed a plaque to celebrate Owen’s induction into the George Tragos / Lou Thesz Professional Hall of Fame and was a precursor to Martha working alongside AEW and Tony Khan to celebrate Hart with the launch of the Owen Hart Foundation Tournament, and appear at last May’s Double or Nothing event in Las Vegas.
Martha Hart holding her husband’s Hall of Fame plaque. Owen Hart was inducted posthumously into the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame on July 28. pic.twitter.com/ECYLzMKbFo
— Dan Gable Museum (@wrestlingmuseum) August 28, 2018
The death of Owen Hart is a painful reminder of the extreme risk involved and yet, all these years later, are talent fully confident in turning down such extreme risks when asked by their company? Answers will vary but in an industry with a hierarchy outlined by one’s spot on the card, aggressive maneuvering for television time to reach the next level, and improve your worth in the eyes of the promoter, talents will often ignore risk and pessimism in favor of glory and reward. This is an industry comprised of athleticism, theatre, and yes, stunt work – whether it be jumping off Hell in a Cell structure, diving off ladders to the floor, pushing the human tolerance of pain, and coming back to one-up the previous feat.
We should never see a tragedy like Owen Hart again, but we should take away the lesson, that talent requires protection not only from those around them but protection from themselves from what is a reasonable risk as opposed to needless.