The Tragic 1981 Death Of Harry Chapin

Harry Chapin, the singer-songwriter best known for his song "Cat's in the Cradle," was on his way to work. Chapin left his home in Huntington Bay, Long Island on July 16, 1981, heading to Manhattan to take care of some business, according to The New York Times and the Associated Press. He was set to perform a free concert the next day on Long Island. Chapin performed a lot of charity concerts and live performances in general. He'd done 250 the year before with half being benefits, mostly to fight hunger, a cause he truly believed in.

Just before 12:30 p.m., Chapin suddenly slowed his blue 1975 VW Rabbit near Exit 40 at Jericho on the Long Island Expressway. He flipped on his hazard lights and headed for the center lane, speeding up and cutting off a tractor-trailer that couldn't stop in time, per UPI. The truck collided with the car, which started on fire. The truck driver pulled the singer-songwriter from the fiery wreckage, but Chapin didn't survive the accident. He was 38 and left a wife and five children behind.

A heart attack?

When Harry Chapin's car swerved in front of the semi owned by Rickles Home Center of Paramus, N.J., the impact crushed the back of the VW and as both vehicles hurled down the highway, sparks ignited the VWs engine, which exploded, per The New York Times. The truck driver, Robert Eggleton, jumped out of his truck, cut Chapin's seatbelt, and dragged him out through the window, according to the AP and UPI.

An ambulance rushed Harry Chapin to Nassau County Medical Center where they pronounced him dead a little more than half an hour after the accident. Initial reports indicated Chapin had suffered a heart attack, but the doctors didn't know if it had occurred before or after the accident. Chapin had burns and severe internal injuries. An autopsy revealed the crash's impact lacerated his aorta, causing "massive hemorrhaging into his chest cavity," per UPI. The medical examiner in the case said the report of Chapin suffering a heart attack had been incorrect. The question remained of why Chapin had been driving erratically.

What happened?

The Nassau County Police surmised Harry Chapin's VW may have had some kind of engine trouble and that he was trying to get across the lanes to the roadway's shoulder, according to The New York Times and UPI. The police didn't file any charges in the incident. At the time of the accident, Chapin's driver's license had been revoked for speeding violations. Whatever the cause of the accident, the accolades for the dead artist quickly poured in. Chapin had championed a variety of causes, from world hunger to multiple sclerosis.

In an unusual act, 13 members of the U.S. House of Representatives stood up during a session to publicly honor Chapin a day after his death, according to The Washington Post. Chapin had persistently pushed members of Congress to do what they could to help end world hunger and championed the presidential hunger commission, on which he served as a member. He stumped for both Democrats and Republicans he felt were doing a good job on the issue. A week after Chapin's death, 500 of his family, friends, and fans gathered at Brooklyn's Grace Church to honor the singer, per the AP. They sang his songs, recounted stories, and celebrated his life.