Monday will mark the 27th Anniversary of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. As a 6-year old boy home sick from school, my sense of wild-eyed wonder went up in flames with the seven men and women, who perished before my eyes. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last that something horrific happened while the world was watching. Life’d gives you a quick history of broadcast tragedies with 6 Dead, Live Before a TV Audience.
Two days after shooting President John F. Kennedy from the Texas School Book Depository – a crime which itself was immortalized on the Abraham Zapruder film – assassin Lee Harvey Oswald would be gunned down on a live television broadcast by gunman Jack Ruby. While the two incidents were certainly not the first time a violent murder would be caught on film or tape, it is to our knowledge the first time something like this would occur on broadcast television.
As if Fox News didn’t have a bad enough reputation with its foes, it made the mistake of not pulling back in time – despite a 5-second delay – when 33-year old Arizona carjacker Jodon Romero shot himself on Sept. 28, 2012. In the video, police give chase to Romero, who eventually turns down a dirt road and abandons the vehicle. At this point, Shepherd Smith begins yelling at crew to “Get off it!” The message was not heeded in time and as a result, viewers witnessed Romero shoot himself in the head. Smith would later issue this apology: “We really messed up, and we’re all very sorry. That didn’t belong on TV.”
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station was the site of one of the most memorable disasters of the 20th Century. On the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, the seven members of the Challenger crew – Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael J. Smith and Dick Scobee – boarded the Challenger shuttle, which unknown to the public (but not the engineers, unfortunately) suffered from a faulty O-ring that would ultimately lead to the shuttle breaking apart one minute, 13 seconds after liftoff. America watched helplessly as the Challenger broke into fiery pieces over the Atlantic Ocean. Later that evening, President Ronald Reagan gave what many believe to be the greatest speech of the 20th Century. Quoting a poem by John Gillespie Magee, Reagan said, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”
The WWE Over the Edge Pay-Per-View on the night of May 23, 1999, took a tragic turn when in front of thousands of fans in attendance and millions watching at home, one-time King of the Ring Owen Hart fell 50 feet to his death inside the ring. Hart’s gimmick at the time of the accident was as The Blue Blazer, a masked wrestler known for swooping in from the rafters while locked in a harness. The character was a satire of superheroes, but there was nothing funny about what fans witnessed that night. Shortly into Hart’s descent, the harness proved faulty, sending him crashing to the ring. His head struck a turnbuckle on the way down, and EMTs were called immediately to the scene. The WWE claims footage of the actual fall doesn’t exist, and it was the dramatic aftermath rather than the tragedy itself that TV viewers witnessed that night. Still, many in attendance were witness to the event, and the remainder of the broadcast was tarnished by the somber outcome, which announcer Jim Ross verified later in the broadcast.
Christine Chubbuck was a news reporter on the rise. As the host of the locally popular Suncoast Digest on WXLT-TV out of Sarasota, Fla., the serious, dark-haired beauty suffered from depression and, according to friends and co-workers, was one of the most self-deprecating people they’d ever met, never finding any level of comfort with her own abilities. Chubbuck’s depression reached a fever pitch on the July 15, 1974 when in front of her crew and the morning’s guest, Chubbuck issued her last words: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide.” With that, Chubbuck pulled out a revolver and shot herself behind the ear. The footage of her shooting was seized by police and eventually released to the Chubbuck family. It is no longer believed to exist.
Pennsylvania politician R. Budd Dwyer was a state senator, who later achieved infamy after accepting the position as State Treasurer, along with $300,000 in illegal kickbacks from an accounting firm. Dwyer was convicted of the bribery charges but allowed to serve the rest of his tenure as treasurer, maintaining his innocence the entire time and even going as far to seek a pardon from fellow Republican, President Ronald Reagan. Dwyer’s term would end on Jan. 22, 1987, when before a press conference on local television, the 47-year old made a few last remarks, then produced a .357 Magnum Smith & Wesson revolver. Those in attendance pleaded with him to put down the gun. As they drew closer, he told them to stand back stating, “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. This will hurt someone.” Moments later, the gun was in Dwyer’s mouth. It’s still hard to watch what happened next without getting queasy. By the way, the video is available on YouTube. We don’t recommend.