Twilight Zone accident
On July 23, 1982, a Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter crashed at Indian Dunes in Valencia, Santa Clarita, California, during the making of Twilight Zone: The Movie. The crash killed three people on the ground (actor Vic Morrow and two child actors, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen) as well as injured the six helicopter passengers, including the director, John Landis. The incident led to years of civil and criminal action and was directly responsible for the introduction of new procedures and safety standards within the filmmaking industry.
|Date||July 23, 1982|
|Summary||Loss of control after tail rotor failure caused by pyrotechnics|
|Site||Indian Dunes, Valencia, Santa Clarita, California, U.S.|
|Aircraft type||Bell UH-1B Iroquois|
|Operator||Western Helicopters Inc.|
|Passengers||5 (including John Landis)|
|Fatalities||3 (on ground, including Vic Morrow)|
|Survivors||6 (all onboard the helicopter)|
The film featured four sequences, one of which was based on a 1961 Twilight Zone episode, "A Quality of Mercy." In the script, character Bill Connor (Morrow) is a bigot who travels back in time to suffer through various eras of persecution, such as Nazi-occupied Europe and the racial segregation of the American South during the mid-20th century. He then finds himself in the midst of the Vietnam War, where he decides to protect some Vietnamese children from American troops.
Director John Landis violated California's child labor laws by hiring seven-year-old Myca Dinh Le (Vietnamese: Myca Đinh Lê) and six-year-old Renee Shin-Yi Chen (Chinese: 陳欣怡; pinyin: Chén Xīnyí) without the required permits. Landis and several other staff members were also responsible for a number of labor violations connected with other people involved in the accident, all of which came to light after the incident had occurred.
Le and Chen were being paid under the table to circumvent California's child labor laws, which did not permit children to work at night. Landis opted not to seek a special waiver, either because he did not think he would get permission for such a late hour or because he knew he would never get approval to have young children as part of a scene with a large number of explosives. The casting agents were unaware that the children would be involved in the scene. Associate producer George Folsey, Jr. told the children's parents not to tell any firefighters on set that the children were part of the scene, and also hid them from a fire safety officer who also worked as a welfare worker. A fire safety officer was concerned the blasts would cause a crash, but did not tell Landis of his concerns. Morrow's friend and former Combat! co-star Dick Peabody wrote that Morrow's last words before the accident were "I've got to be crazy to do this shot. I should've asked for a double."
The filming location was a ranch known as Indian Dunes that was used through the 1980s in films and television shows, including The Color Purple, Escape From New York, MacGyver and China Beach. The location was extremely popular; it was within the 30-mile zone, its wide-open area allowed for more pyrotechnic effects, and it was possible to shoot night scenes without city lights visible in the background. Additionally, Indian Dunes' 600 acres (2.4 km2) featured a wide topography—green hills, dry desert, dense woods, and jungle-like riverbeds along the Santa Clara River—that made it suitable to double for locations around the world, including Afghanistan, Myanmar, Brazil, and in particular, Vietnam.
The night scene called for Morrow's character to carry the two children across the river while being pursued by US soldiers in a helicopter. The helicopter was piloted by Vietnam War veteran Dorcey Wingo. During the filming of the scene, Wingo stationed his helicopter 25 feet (7.6 m) from the ground and, while hovering near a large mortar effect, he turned the aircraft 180 degrees to the left for the next camera shot. The effect was detonated while the helicopter's tail-rotor was still above it, causing the rotor to fail and detach from the tail. The low-flying helicopter spun out of control. Morrow dropped Chen into the water. As Morrow was reaching out to grab Chen, the helicopter fell on top of Morrow and the two children. Morrow and Le were decapitated by the helicopter's main rotor blades while Chen was crushed to death by the same rotor blades.
At the subsequent trial, the defense claimed that the explosions were detonated at the wrong time. Randall Robinson, an assistant cameraman on board the helicopter, testified that production manager Dan Allingham told Wingo, "That's too much. Let's get out of here," when the explosions were detonated, but Landis shouted over the radio: "Get lower... lower! Get over!" Robinson said that Wingo tried to leave the area, but that "we lost our control and regained it and then I could feel something let go and we began spinning around in circles." Stephen Lydecker, also a camera operator on board, testified that Landis had earlier "shrugged off" warnings about the stunt with the comment "We may lose the helicopter." While Lydecker acknowledged that Landis may have been joking when he made the remark, he said: "I learned not to take anything the man said as a joke. It was his attitude. He didn't have time for suggestions from anybody."
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had just instituted regulations in March of that year to define how aircraft were to be regulated during film and television productions. The new regulations, however, only covered fixed-wing aircraft and not helicopters. As a result of the fatal accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended that the terms be extended to apply to all types of aircraft.
According to Charles Tashiro, it was eminently foreseeable that in determining culpability, the system would look to the director in charge—Landis—instead of to larger, systemic problems which may have enabled the accident:
"On location, the crew photographing the scene is directed by someone who has been encouraged to believe he should create the most spectacular image his imagination and budget will allow. Since one law (forbidding child labor after hours) has already been broken, the precedent for ignoring constraints has been set. Because of this indifference of the critical community, the effort becomes strictly formal and legal, rather than moral or political. Since the ideology of singular creation and responsibility structures the thinking about film workers and studio executives and is fundamental to the legal system itself, the search for blame is directed toward finding the individuals responsible for the 'accident'."
The accident led to civil and criminal action against the filmmakers which lasted nearly a decade. Le's father, Daniel Lee, testified that he heard Landis instructing the helicopter to fly lower. All four parents testified that they were never told that there would be helicopters or explosives on set, and were reassured that there would be no danger, only noise. Lee, who survived the Vietnam War and immigrated with his wife to the United States, was horrified when the explosions began on the Vietnamese village set, bringing back memories of the war.
Landis, Folsey, Wingo, production manager Dan Allingham, and explosives specialist Paul Stewart were tried and acquitted on charges of manslaughter in a nine-month trial in 1986 and 1987. Morrow's family settled within a year; the children's families collected millions of dollars from several civil lawsuits.
As a result of the accident, second assistant director Andy House had his name removed from the credits and replaced with the pseudonym "Alan Smithee." It was the first time in the history of Hollywood that a director was charged due to a fatality on a set. The trial was described as "long, controversial and bitterly divisive".
Mark Locher, a spokesman for the Screen Actors Guild, said at the conclusion of the trial: "The entire ordeal has shaken the industry from top to bottom... with every actor concerned about their own safety [and] studio managements saying 'let's not take a risk.'" Warner Bros. set up dedicated safety committees to establish acceptable standards "for every aspect of filmmaking, from gunfire to fixed-wing aircraft to smoke and pyrotechnics." The standards are regularly issued as Safety Bulletins and published as the Injury and Illness Prevention Program (IIPP) Safety Manual for Television & Feature Production. The IIPP manual, "a general outline of safe work practices to be used as a guideline for productions to provide a safe work environment", is distributed to all studio employees.
The Directors Guild of America's safety committee began publishing regular safety bulletins for its members and established a telephone hotline to "enable directors to get quick answers to safety questions." The guild also began to discipline its members for violations of its safety procedures on sets, which it had not done prior to the crash. The Screen Actors Guild introduced a 24-hour hotline and safety team for its members and "encouraged members to use the right of refusal guaranteed in contracts if they believe a scene is unsafe."
Following the incident, accidents during filming between 1982 and 1986 fell by 69.6%, although there were still six deaths on sets. Speaking in 1987, movie producer Saul David warned, however: "I think ostensibly there will be more caution for a time. But, in effect, if they had the same shot to do again they would find a way to do it. If the audience says it wants more death-defying and terrible stunts, [the filmmakers] are going to give them more death-defying and terrifying stunts."
Landis' career was not significantly affected by the incident, although he said in 1996: "There was absolutely no good aspect about this whole story. The tragedy, which I think about every day, had an enormous impact on my career, from which it may possibly never recover."
Film director Steven Spielberg, who co-produced the film with Landis, broke off their friendship following the accident. Spielberg said that the crash had "made me grow up a little more" and had left everyone who worked on the movie "sick to the center of our souls." With regard to how the crash had influenced people's attitudes towards safety, he said: "No movie is worth dying for. I think people are standing up much more now than ever before to producers and directors who ask too much. If something isn't safe, it's the right and responsibility of every actor or crew member to yell, 'Cut!'"
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