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  May 25, 1999

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Investigators consider posibilities

By JASON STRAIT -- Associated Press

 KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- This was not the first time that pro wrestler Owen Hart was making his entrance into the ring by being lowered from the rafters as the high-flying "Blue Blazer," with the feathers of his sky-blue costume fluttering in the arena lights.

But on Sunday night, something went wrong.

The 34-year-old member of a legendary Canadian wrestling family fell 90 feet from the ceiling of Kemper Arena. His head hit a padded turnbuckle, a metal coupling that holds the ring's ropes together, and snapped backward. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Hart's death happened in front of 16,200 fans in the arena, and many thought the fall was part of the staged theatrics that have helped fuel the explosion of popularity in pro wrestling in recent years.

The World Wrestling Federation's pay-per-view national TV audience was watching archive footage and did not see Hart fall.

Homicide detectives on Monday were inspecting the rigging that was to lower Hart by cable from the arena catwalk and talking to the stagehands to determine what went wrong, police spokesman Floyd Mitchell said.

Mitchell said the cable did not break, and detectives believe something went wrong when Hart's harness was being hitched to the cable.

WWF President Vince McMahon Jr. said he believes Hart may have accidentally pulled a release mechanism.

The WWF is one of the biggest draws on cable and pay-per-view TV, but critics say the matches often are sexist, homophobic and violent. The WWF admits its events are more entertainment than sport.

McMahon said WWF wrestlers will stop performing the aerial move that killed Hart, but said other stunts will continue.

"Stunts like this are performed at major sporting events on a routine basis in Hollywood," he said. "We compete with Hollywood for entertainment."

The WWF canceled plans to replay the tape of Sunday's pay-per-view program on Tuesday and Thursday. It also called off upcoming live events in Peoria, Ill.; Winnipeg, Manitoba; Hamilton, Ontario; Montreal and Ottawa.

But a WWF event went on as planned Monday night in St. Louis, where a crowd of 19,000 jammed the Kiel Center for a "Raw is War" show that included a tribute to Hart.

"Out of respect for Owen, knowing the consummate performer he was, I'm sure members of the Hart family would concur with me that he would want the show to go on," McMahon said.

Tears streamed down the faces of many wrestlers, fans, even referees, as 10 bells tolled in Hart's honor and as videotape of him appeared on a huge video screen. Many of the wrestlers wore black armbands with "OH" on them. The crowd chanted "Owen, Owen."

Hart was the youngest son of Stu Hart, a member of Canada's Olympic wrestling team in the 1940s. All seven of Stu Hart's sons went into wrestling, including Bret "The Hitman" Hart, a World Championship Wrestling star who canceled an appearance Monday on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

Hart's mother, Helen, told the Calgary (Alberta) Herald that she always feared one of her sons would be disabled in the ring.

"It's a dangerous sport in more ways than you can know," she said. "I just never thought one of my boys would be killed."

At 5-foot-11 and 227 pounds, Hart was billed as an acrobatic stuntman who acted as a foil for WWF heavyweights. Hart had been a high-profile character when he broke into wrestling 10 years ago, but he was recast as a plain, straightforward wrestler, in contrast to charismatic personalities such as "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.

"His schtick was he really didn't have one," said Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer newsletter.

Hart had been lowered by cable into the ring before, and other wrestlers have done it dozens of times, Meltzer said.

Some audience members initially thought the fall was part of the act.

"We thought it was a doll at first," said Robert McCome, 15. "We thought they were just playing with us. We were really shocked when we found out that it was no joke."

While paramedics attended to Hart, the arena announcer haltingly told the hushed crowd the incident was not scripted. The event resumed about 15 minutes after he was taken away.

"It was still tons of fun," said Barry Bickel, 21. "But that just dampened the whole thing."

Fans watching on TV were told of Hart's death about an hour after it happened, Meltzer said.

Wade Keller, editor of the Pro Wrestling Torch newsletter, said it was the first fatal accident he knew of in U.S. wrestling since 1969, when Mike DiBiase died of a heart attack during a match in Lubbock, Texas.

Alan Schmelzle, general manager of Kemper Arena, said the WWF asked him not to discuss the fall. Local stagehands assisted on the catwalk, but WWF employees were in charge, he said.

Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a former WWF wrestler, called the Harts "a legendary family of wrestling" and said Hart's death was a reminder that wrestling is a tough job.

"Maybe people ought to start thinking about respecting them a little more," Ventura said. "These performers give their heart and soul to their job."

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