The Tragic 1974 Deaths Of Stephen Colbert's Father And Brothers

Stephen Colbert is known for his witty commentary and distinct comedy style. However, per Biography, the comedian actually suffered three heavy losses during his childhood when his two brothers and his father tragically died in a plane crash. Colbert lost his father James William Colbert Jr. and his two brothers Paul and Peter in one fell swoop when he was just 10 years old. Paul was 18, Peter 15, and James William Colbert Jr. was 53 when the accident happened.

The crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 212, which took place on September 11, 1974, was considered to be among the top 20 worst airplane crashes in the United States at the time (via Aviation Safety Network). Colbert's father and two brothers had been traveling from Charleston, South Carolina to Chicago, Illinois. Tragically, the plane was only three miles away from its destination when it flew too low upon embarking on the landing, crashed into trees, and became engulfed in flames. Including Colbert's father and brothers, the plane crash had 72 fatalities out of a total of 82 people on the plane; 70 passengers and two crew members. According to the Aviation Safety Network, the NTSB stated that the accident was the result of negligence by the pilots, who were determined to have not been paying proper attention during a crucial moment.

The comedian lost the brothers closest in age to him

In a 2015 interview with GQ, Stephen Colbert described the aftermath of the plane crash, saying, "I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died ... And it was just me and Mom for a long time." In 2019, he spoke to Anderson Cooper in a CNN interview about how he and his mother coped, stating, "There's this big break in the cable of my memory at their death. Everything before that has got an odd, ghostly tone ... My mother had me to take care of, which I think was sort of a gift for her, a sense of purpose at that point. But I also had her to take care of."

Although Colbert mentions it felt like it was just him and then him and his mother for a while, he actually had eight other siblings. Per CNN, Colbert is the youngest of 11 children. His deceased brothers Paul and Peter were the third and second youngest, respectively. However, the talk show host has never discussed how his siblings felt or how they may have helped each other through the grieving process, though this could be because he is the youngest and could have been the only one living at home after the incident occurred.

He has been open about what he did to heal from the grief

Perhaps because the incident happened when he was so young, Stephen Colbert has said that he didn't fully process the grief of losing his brothers and father until several years later. Speaking to Oprah Winfrey in 2012, he revealed, "I didn't really feel the loss until I was in college. Then, I was in bad shape ... I was just so sad about it." During his time at college, Colbert transferred to Northwestern University in Chicago and discovered his love of theater and then comedy (per Biography), both of which he has credited for helping him heal.

In the same GQ interview mentioned above, Colbert shared, "You gotta learn to love the bomb. Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it ... That might be why you don't see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage." Colbert additionally revealed that he finally began to feel grateful for his life around age 35. "I felt so guilty to be grateful," he said. "But I knew it was true. It's not the same thing as wanting it to have happened. But you can't change everything about the world. You certainly can't change things that have already happened."