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The WWF marches on, with tears for a friend

By JIM SALTER -- Associated Press

 ST. LOUIS -- The family of a professional wrestler who was killed when he fell during a stunt high above the ring says the wrestling federation took too many chances with wrestlers' safety.

Owen Hart, member of a prominent Canadian wrestling family, plummeted 70 feet or more to his death Sunday at Kemper Arena in Kansas City as he was being lowered into the ring from the arena's ceiling. At the World Wrestling Federation's event the next night, held in St. Louis, some wrestlers wept openly, as did some of the 19,000 fans at the sold-out Kiel Center.

Hart's brother Bret, also a wrestling star, told "Good Morning America" today that his brother had been worried about the stunt.

"This idea was taken to him," Bret Hart said. "There was a bit of discomfort about the danger in it. But somehow over the weekend he got talked into doing it again. He was very uneasy about it."

He said there should have been "some kind of a safety cable."

"We're professional wrestlers; we take our falls on the mat, inside the ring," Hart said. "I was never a stuntman, and my brother Owen was never a stuntman. He never should have been put in a situation where he was up on the top of a ceiling of an arena to go into the ring."

Bret Hart, known as "The Hitman," is a star on the World Championship Wrestling circuit, rival to his brother's organization, the World Wrestling Federation. They are sons of Stu Hart, a member of Canada's Olympic wrestling team in the 1940s. All seven of his sons went into wrestling.

Ellie Hart, a sister, said both organizations were trying more and more tricky stunts to attract fans.

"Frankly, wrestling was getting so far out and my poor brother Owen was a sacrifice for the ratings, that's how I look at it," she said Monday.

"They kept on getting more and more far out with the gimmicks and angles. ... We figured sooner or later somebody was going to end up with a tragedy because of the direction wrestling was taking with both WWF and WCW."

Hart's death was all the more shocking to fans because none of the performers are supposed to get hurt -- no matter how painful the pounding seems. Even after Hart hit the canvas, many of the 16,200 Kansas City fans thought the stunt was part of the scripted theatrics that have helped fuel the explosion of popularity in wrestling.

More improvisational theater than sport, pro wrestling has been likened to soap opera for men, complete with storylines, subplots and love triangles. The eternal themes are respect, revenge and redemption.

In popular weekly broadcasts on cable television, wrestling has the flash and thunder of a rock concert, the costume and color of a Broadway production.

In that vein, Hart was about to make another of his dramatic entrances Sunday night. He had been attached to wires near the top of Kemper Arena, whose ceiling is 90 feet above the floor. The plan was for him to descend into the ring in "superhero-type fashion," WWF President Vince McMahon said.

Instead, the wrestler plunged into the ring. His head hit a padded turnbuckle, a metal coupling that holds the ring's ropes together, and snapped backward. Hart struggled to lift his head and his arms rose slowly, about a foot off the mat, then collapsed.

Paramedics rushed into the ring, unraveling Hart's trademark "Blue Blazer" mask and unsuccessfully trying to resuscitate him. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.

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 Texas.

Police spokesman Floyd Mitchell said homicide detectives were inspecting Hart's rigging and talking to the stagehands to determine what went wrong.

Mitchell said the cable did not break, and detectives believe Hart's harness may have been hitched incorrectly. McMahon said he believes Hart may have accidentally pulled a release mechanism.

McMahon said WWF wrestlers will stop performing the aerial move that killed Hart, but said other stunts will continue. The WWF has scrapped plans to replay Sunday's event on pay-per-view TV and called off upcoming live events in Peoria, Ill.; Winnipeg, Manitoba; Hamilton, Ontario; Montreal and Ottawa.

But in St. Louis the show went on.

"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.

Ellie Hart agreed that her brother, "being the kind of person he was, would have wanted Vince to continue. That's the nature of wrestling." But she said she thought Sunday's event should have been halted.

Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a former pro 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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