Legendary actor Kirk Douglas, who died peacefully at 103 Wednesday, grew to truly appreciate his remarkable life after a series of setbacks — including surviving a severe stroke in 1996 and a life-changing Feb. 13, 1991, helicopter crash.
“I’ll never forget the date,” Douglas wrote in the opening of his 2000 autobiographical work “Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning” of the crash that set off a media storm at the time. The collision with a small plane, and loss of the two plane’s passengers, made it “the most important day of my life” that would alter it “forever.”
The tough-guy actor was 74 and a passenger flying with his pilot friend, cartoon voice artist Noel Blanc, from California’s Santa Paula Airport. Blanc took the Bell Jet Ranger helicopter up for the routine flight, flying tragically into the path of a Pitts aerobatic plane flown by Lee Manelski, 47, and student pilot David Tomlinson, 18, who were both killed.
“In that horrible fraction of a second, the rotating blades of Noel’s Bell Ranger helicopter sliced into the wing of David and Lee’s Pitts, ripping it open and exposing its fuel to air. Carried by its fateful momentum, the little plane continued to rise forward into the blue sky,” Douglas wrote.
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The plane exploded in a fireball. The helicopter, with its rotor torn off, fell about 20 to 40 feet, according to news reports at the time, and crashed onto the tarmac.
“But we were alive in the tangled wreckage. David and Lee were dead in the smoldering remains. At that moment I was unconscious,” wrote Douglas. “I didn’t know that from this day forward I would be asking: Why did they die? Why was I alive?”
Douglas had to be pulled from the burning helicopter wreckage that threatened to explode. But he remembered nothing after the direct impact. “Often, when I am asked about the accident today, people want to know what I experienced at the moment. Did I see a long tunnel with a blazing white light at the other end?” he wrote. “Sorry I saw and heard nothing. If it was there, I missed the show.”
The actor was hospitalized for rib and back injuries, and found out later his spine was compressed by the crash impact to the point he lost three inches in height. Two weeks after he was released from the hospital, Douglas had a professional makeup artist cover his facial bruises so that he could attend the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony in his honor.
The injuries he suffered lead to years of physical back pain, and the emotional impact stayed with Douglas for his lifetime.
Besides honoring the two men who had died, the actor was spurred to make changes in his life, especially in terms of stepping up his philanthropic work. Douglas sought professional help to deal with “survivor’s guilt” for pulling through the crash.
During one discussion with a psychiatrist, Douglas remembered a poem he had written as a young man, “Life is a lock and death the only key.” The accident put the words he had written into context.
He recalled in “Climbing”: “I suspect that on some primitive level I felt, more than understood, what Albert Schweitzer meant when he wrote: ‘Thinking about death … produces true love for life. When we are familiar with death, we accept each week, each day, as a gift.’ “
Years later, after dealing with more chronic pain from the crash, Douglas would come to see the emotional burden as a call from God to continue his life’s work.
“It took me a long time to come to this conclusion,” Douglas wrote. “My life was spared in that helicopter crash because there was still some mission that I must fulfill. … Was he reminding me that on the good days, when I felt no pain, I wasn’t getting on with the program?”