A few more Owen Hart details to keep in mind...

Something to think about going into tonight's season finale of Dark Side of the Ring.

Counterclockwise from right: Martha, Owen, and baby Oje Hart in a family portrait. (Photo: VICE TV)

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The finale of season two of VICE TV’s Dark Side of the Ring airs tonight, focusing on the death of Owen Hart. While I’ve seen the episode—I have an article coming out later today featuring quotes from a Martha Hart interview I did last week—I’m honestly not sure what to expect coming out of this episode. Even hardcore fans generally don’t know the real story behind why Owen Hart fell to his death at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri on May 23, 1999. That’s started the change a little bit in the last week with Martha’s appearance on Chris Jericho’s podcast and the byproducts of the other phone interviews from last Thursday dropping, but the Dark Side episode airing is going to be the big one. In a way, this is even more hyped than the Chris Benoit episode was, complete with Dark Side of the Ring partnering with Martha on the first-ever posthumous Owen Hart t-shirts on ProWrestlingTees.com, complete with all profits going to the Owen Hart Foundation.

In the last year, with my Deadspin article for the 20th anniversary and my FanByte article after I got the Kansas City Police Department file, I’ve tried my best to educate people about what really happened. And I’d like to think I made some kind of dent, because hundreds of thousands of people read the Deadspin article, but the vast majority, even among hardcores clearly still have no idea what really happened. Unfortunately, due to having to pack a lot into 44 minutes, the Dark Side of the Ring episode even misses one key bit: WWE’s doggedness in pursuing a stunt rigger who would use some kind of quick release mechanism for rappelling and similar stunts in spite of repeated warnings on safety grounds from their usual, super qualified rigger, even turning down an offer to do it the safer way (with locking mountain climbing equipment) at a steep discount. I’m not going to re-litigate all of that here; just read my previous articles (and potentially Martha Hart’s book) to get the full details on that.

But there is something in the KCPD investigative file that I cut down the details of in the FanByte article and really deserves fuller attention, which is why I’m writing up this post:

Starting on page 41 is the report summarizing Detective William Martin III’s trip to Hollywood to meet with Tom Dewier of the International Stunt Association. What becomes crystal clear from reading his assessment is that while he stresses that while it’s inherently a bad idea to give an actor control over a stunt, there were still several better, safer options that could have been used over the jerk vest and single quick release snap shackle that Owen was suspended with, with the latter requiring just six pounds of pressure to open.

But before we get into the quick release, even the type of stunt vest being used wasn’t right. “He stated the AMSPEC jerk vest used is primarily designed to be used for diagonal jerks or drag stunts,” Martin wrote in his summary of what Dewier said. “He stated he has seen this vest used before in falls and lowering stunts, however, he has found that the vest used in this manner puts the main amount of the body weight and force on the torso and chest area of the person wearing the vest and that it is uncomfortable.” Dewier would add that “he has seen in the past where this type of harness was used and when the person was suspended or free hanging for a period of time, the force to the chest area began to affect the persons breathing, to the point of blacking out.” He would have used a harness designed for rappelling, as the design “supports a persons weight very well and would allow the person to stay suspended for a longer period of time without any complications, since the weight and force are directed to the seat area of the harness.”

As for the quick release (Dewier called it a “pelican release”) and its alternatives? Dewier said that he would never use the quick release it “as the sole means of suspending a person more than 10 to 12 feet off the ground,” with it being a bad choice because of the height of the fall and the lack of redundancy. His first choice, like other experts said, would have been to “hard wire” Owen to the equipment using the “locking carabiner” common in mountain climbing. But if he had to give control to the actor to get out himself? He’d use a “three ring release,” the type used in parachutes, which “can be adjusted so it would take an obvious and distinct long movement to activate the device and it could not be accidentally tripped” and also could withstand more force and pressure.

And if he absolutely had to use the quick release snap shackle, which was designed for use mainly in dropping sailboat masts? s he would have “backed up the device, by doubling them up,” with one on the left side and one on the right. “He stated that he would have also looped the release cord to ensure there was more than enough slack, to try and reduce the event of an accidental trip,” which is also important to note because it was the inadequate slack that likely caused the release—which only needed to be moved 1/16th of an inch to open—to become engaged and drop Owen Hart as he adjusted his Blue Blazer cape. Dewier’s tests with associate Perry Brandt helped corroborate this theory.

Anyway, there you go. The rigging itself was, quite arguably, even more dangerous than even those who have read Martha’s book would have known. And that sucks.

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