The tragic, in-ring death of Owen Hart

The world was a different place in 1999. A 15-year-old nerd named Mark Zuckerberg was busy winning high-school math prizes. Nintendo was basking in the glory of its freshly launched and insanely sophisticated new gaming platform, the Game Boy Color. And just as importantly — or so it seemed to many at the time — the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) was rebranding itself as a bolder, edgier, more adult form of entertainment. It was at the height of "The Attitude Era" that Owen Hart sauntered into the public eye as the Blue Blazer: a perfectly unlikable superhero character decked out with a shimmering blue wrestling onesie, dashing Lucha Libre mask, and a decidedly Liberace-esque fur-lined cape.

On the night in question, Hart was given a dramatically absurd entrance. The plan was that he'd be lowered by a cable, beginning his descent far up in the rafters of the packed Kemper Arena in Kansas City. After milking ample opportunities to flex majestically in mid-air, Hart would use a quick-release cable to fall comedically from a safe distance. The crowd would gasp, then roar with laughter, and the performers would ride that collective wave of endorphins, nervous sweat, and stale popcorn to nail it in the ring. That was the plan.

Here's what actually went down

What actually happened was tragic and deadly. At between 50 feet and 75 feet (accounts vary), Hart's hair-triggered rigging malfunctioned. In front of an audience of over 16,000 spectators, he plunged to the floor, his head colliding with the rope turnbuckles and snapping backward violently. People thought it was an act; they assumed the falling figure must have been a lifelike doll. While the crowded waited eagerly for the punchline, medical staff desperately tried and failed to resuscitate Hart.

Minutes later, an obviously shaken commentator, Jim Ross, announced: "Owen Hart was set to make an entrance from the ceiling and he fell.... I have the unfortunate responsibility to let everyone know that he has died. Owen Hart has tragically died from that accident here tonight." Interviewed by Wrestle Talk, Ross later revealed that cameras cut to him to deliver the announcement seconds after he had learned that Owen Hart had expired just a few feet away from him. One of the more disturbing facets of Ross's announcement is how the audience suddenly quietens. You can see the exact moment spectators realize they haven't been watching elaborate stunt theatre; that they just saw a man die.

The fallout

Like any sudden human tragedy, ripples fanned out in many directions and reverberated through society in unexpected ways. There was stunned disbelief at how the incident was managed. As Sports Illustrated reports, rather unbelievably, the show continued. The night's wrestling went ahead where Hart had died only minutes earlier, the mat allegedly still stained with his blood. This led family and friends to level accusations at the WWF that its response had been callous and profit-driven. There were recriminations, too. Owen's wife claimed the stunt had been practiced differently, and that the rigging had been criminally bungled. The family won an $18 million out of court settlement for a wrongful death lawsuit. And finally, Owen Hart seems to have been at the center of a fight over his symbolic legacy. When the WWF made moves to induct Hart into the WWE Hall of Fame, his family flatly refused. Instead, they established the Owen Hart Foundation, an organization aimed at providing opportunities for "hard-working people who have limited resources and unlimited potential."

Looking back on this whole incident from the perspective of a social media drenched society, so many of the details around Hart's death are hard to fathom. How could a stunt with such high stakes not have been practiced endlessly? Why would a multi-million dollar entity like WWF not see the huge optics downside of carrying on as though nothing happened? And how odd is it that just over two decades ago, something like this could happen in front of over 16,000 people and not end up as a dank meme in a corner of Reddit? RIP, Blue Blazer.