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 child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen) and injured the six helicopter passengers. The incident led to years of civil and criminal action and was responsible for the introduction of new procedures and safety standards in the filmmaking industry.
A UH-1B similar to the accident helicopter
|Date||July 23, 1982|
|Summary||Loss of control after tail rotor failure caused by pyrotechnics|
|Site||Indian Dunes, Valencia, Santa Clarita, California |
|Total fatalities||3 (on ground, including Vic Morrow)|
|Aircraft type||Bell UH-1B Iroquois|
|Operator||Western Helicopters Inc.|
|Survivors||6 (all onboard the helicopter)|
The film featured four sequences, one of which was based on the 1961 Twilight Zone episode "A Quality of Mercy". In the script, character Bill Connor (Morrow) is transported back in time to the midst of the Vietnam War, where he has become a Vietnamese man protecting two children from American troops.
Director John Landis violated California's child labor laws by hiring seven year-old Myca Dinh Le and six year-old Renee Shin-Yi Chen 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, which came to light after the incident.
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 that he would get permission for such a late hour or because he knew that he would not get approval to have young children in 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 the set that the children were part of the scene, and hid them from a fire safety officer who also worked as a welfare worker. A fire safety officer was concerned that the blasts would cause a crash, but he did not tell Landis of his concerns. Morrow's friend and former Combat! co-star Dick Peabody wrote that Morrow's last words a few minutes 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 the ranch 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 within the 30-mile zone, its wide-open area permitted more pyrotechnic effects, and it was possible to shoot night scenes without city lights visible in the background. Indian Dunes' 600 acres (2.4 km2) also featured a wide topography of green hills, dry desert, dense woods, and jungle-like riverbeds along the Santa Clara River which made it suitable to double for locations around the world, including Afghanistan, Myanmar, Brazil, and Vietnam.
The night scene called for Morrow's character to carry the two children out of a deserted village and across a shallow river while being pursued by American soldiers in a hovering helicopter. The helicopter was piloted by Vietnam War veteran Dorcey Wingo. During the filming, Wingo stationed his helicopter 25 feet (7.6 m) from the ground, while hovering near a large mortar effect; he then 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. At the same time, Morrow dropped Chen into the water. He was reaching out to grab her when the helicopter fell on top of him and the two children. Morrow and Le were decapitated by the helicopter's main rotor blades, while Chen was crushed to death by the helicopter's right landing skid; all three died instantaneously.
At the trial, the defense claimed that the explosions were detonated at the wrong time. Randall Robinson was an assistant cameraman on board the helicopter, and he 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 [lower]!" 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." Lydecker acknowledged that Landis might have been joking when he made the remark, but 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.
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 they had been reassured that there would be no danger, only noise. Lee survived the Vietnam War and emigrated with his wife to the United States, and he was horrified when the explosions began on the Vietnamese village set, bringing back memories of the war.
Landis, Folsey, Wingo, production manager 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 that a director was charged due to a fatality on a set. The trial was described as "long, controversial and bitterly divisive".
Screen Actors Guild spokesman Mark Locher said at the conclusion of the trial: "The entire ordeal has shaken the industry from top to bottom." 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 is "a general outline of safe work practices to be used as a guideline for productions to provide a safe work environment" and 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." Filming accidents fell by 69.6-percent between 1982 and 1986, although there were still six deaths on sets.
Landis spoke about the accident in a 1996 interview: "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." Filmmaker Steven Spielberg co-produced the film with Landis, but he broke off their friendship following the accident. Spielberg said that the crash "made me grow up a little more" and left everyone who worked on the movie "sick to the center of our souls". He added: "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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