ON-SET FIREARMS DEATHS

 

It is the goal of the TACTICAL EDGE GROUP to provide the education and expert firearms services necessary to insure that tragedies such as these will never again occur in our business. The following incidents are clear examples of why a licensed firearms specialist MUST be on set whenever firearms are being used.

 

Friday October 12th, 1984
Jon-Erik Hexum died on the set of the CBS television series "COVER UP".


The show was being filmed at the Twentieth Century Fox studios lot in Century City, when he 'accidentally' shot himself. The character he was playing was a weapons expert whose cover was that of a fashion show photographer.


During a scene where he is lying in bed, in between takes, he was playing around with a .44 Magnum revolver that was on-set for use as a blank-firing weapon. Shortly after 5:15 p.m. he put the pistol (according to witnesses, it was loaded with three empty cartridges and two blanks) up to his right temple. As he pulled the trigger he smiled, and supposedly said, "Let's see if I got myself with this one." He was apparently unaware that at close range, a blank can cause great damage. The explosion drove a quarter-sized piece of his skull far into his brain. The paper wadding of the straight-walled blank cartridge went straight into his temple and forced a bone chip to lodge in his brain.


A witness' account stated: "John smiled and pulled the trigger. There was a loud bang and a bright flash, then black smoke. Jon screamed in agony, and then looked kind of amazed as he slumped back onto the bed with blood streaming from a severe head wound. It was horrible." Another witness said, "One of the assistants rushed over to Jon with a towel and wrapped it around his head, trying to stop the blood."


Someone called an ambulance, but before it arrived, several of the crew carried Jon out to one of the studio station wagons, and drove him to the old Beverly Hills Medical Center. According to the autopsy report, , it states, "The deceased (Hexum) is a male 26 years old, who shot himself in the head with a prop handgun at a movie studio. Initially, a hospital spokesperson stated that his condition was "serious," but after five hours of surgery, they pronounced his condition as "critical." Six days later on Thursday October 18th, he was still in a coma, and they pronounced him brain dead. With his mother's permission, Hexum was flown to San Francisco's Pacific Medical Center, still on life support, and his heart was transplanted into the body of a dying 36-year-old Las Vegas escort service owner. They also took his kidneys and corneas. The kidneys were sent to the Southern California Transplant Bank, in LA. The corneas went to a 66-year-old man with cataracts. Hexum's family and friends, including his girlfriend Elizabeth Daily, gathered at the hospital to say good-bye.

THE PROBLEM: Actor was allowed to keep unsupervised control of a firearm when not filming. Firearm was loaded. Prop department/armorer did not follow safety guidelines and did not exercise weapons control..

THE RESULT: Preventable death.

 

March 31, 1993
Brandon Lee died on the set of the feature film "THE CROW".

Lee was on the threshold of becoming a star when he was killed on the set of The Crow. The movie was a violent fantasy film about a rock musician who's murdered by thugs and returns from the dead to avenge his death. Lee had paid his dues, perfecting his craft in low-budget martial arts films like Legacy of Rage and Showdown in Little Tokyo. He garnered his first starring role in 1992 action film Rapid Fire and had signed a three-picture deal with Twentieth Century Fox.


Lee believed that his role in The Crow would be his big break and poured his considerable energy and enthusiasm into the project, which was being shot in 58 grueling days to keep the production under its $14-million budget.

It was being filmed at Carolco Studios (now Screen Gems) in Wilmington, North Carolina. The set was plagued by numerous accidents before and during filming. On the first day of shooting, February 1, 1993, a carpenter was severely shocked and received serious burns when the scissors lift he was driving came into contact with high-voltage power lines. On March 13 heavy storms destroyed some of the elaborate sets causing delays. Later a prop master discovered a live round in one of the prop guns and an enraged carpenter drove his car into the studio's plaster shop. Also a worker was injured when a screwdriver was accidentally driven through his own hand and a stuntman fell through the roof of one of the sets, breaking several ribs.

As filming finally neared completion, eight days from wrap to be exact, yet another accident would rock the slipshod production. Several prop masters, in an attempt to save time and money, made a grave decision regarding some bullet cartridges that were to be used for a scene involving a close-up shot of a handgun being fired. During the scene, the gun was loaded with "dummy" cartridges, which are used for close-up shots because they contain the actual projectile on the end of the cartridge but contain no gunpowder. (It looks more realistic if the viewer can see the bullet tips in the pistol's cylinders.)

It seems that the prop department didn't have any of these "dummy" cartridges on hand, so rather than shut down the production for the night, some Bozo decided that he'd "rig" some of the live rounds. They removed the gunpowder from the cartridges and replaced the bullet tips thereby giving them the "dummy' rounds that were needed for the close-up shots. At some point, one of the tips would unknowingly come loose from the cartridge and lodge itself in the barrel or cylinder of the handgun. (The subsequent investigation never conclusively determined how or why the bullet tip came dislodged.) This seemingly innocuous oversight would set up the tragic event that ended up shutting down production. As shooting of the close-up scenes finally wrapped, it was now time to move on to the scene in question. Cameras were rolling when the incident occurred on Day 50 of the schedule. It was just after midnight on April 1. It would call for a wide shot of Brandon's character being shot from a handgun that was loaded with "blank" cartridges.

In the scene, a flashback illustrating how Lee's character is killed before coming back to life, Lee walks through a doorway and surprises two punks who are raping his girlfriend.. These blanks were loaded into the handgun not knowing that somewhere in the barrel or cylinder; there was a whole or piece of a dislodged bullet. The scene went according to plan. "Blank" cartridges are different from "dummy" cartridges in that the blanks are loaded with highly explosive powder to give the handgun the smoke and muzzle flash associated with having fired a live round.

Filming was taking place in Eric (Brandon's character) and Shelley's apartment. The scene called for Brandon to enter a room where actor Michael Massee was to shoot him from a distance of 15 to 20 feet with the prop gun, a fully functioning .44-magnum revolver allegedly loaded with blanks. Brandon, wearing black leather jacket and boots, and a T-shirt bearing the prophetic phrase "Hangman's Joke" entered the room carrying a sack of groceries. As the revolver fired, Brandon set off the "squib" which is supposed to simulate bullets hitting the grocery bag. Brandon then collapsed to the floor, remained unattended until the director, an Australian named Alex Proyas, yelled, "Cut!" When he didn't get up, crew members finally noticed his distress, bleeding profusely from his right side.

Many later commented that they noticed he did not hit the floor in the same manner as he had in rehearsals. Brandon groaned and signaled with his arm that he was hit but everyone was too busy with his individual roles to notice. The director yells "cut" but Brandon doesn't get up. Initially it was believed that Lee was somehow struck by a fragment from a squib, the small explosive device used to simulate a bullet impact. The squib was wired into a grocery sack that Lee was carrying during his final scene. Only after pathologists pulled a .44-caliber bullet from his body did people make the connection between the prop gun and Lee's demise.

Brandon was rushed by ambulance to the nearby New Hanover regional Medical Center in Wilmington located at 2131 S. 17th Street. Upon his arrival he still had vital signs and it was decided to perform emergency surgery to stop the bleeding. The bullet created a quarter-sized hole in his lower right abdomen before perforating his stomach and several more vital organs. The "bullet" finally came to a rest next to his spine.

The doctors couldn't stop the severe internal hemorrhaging. He died in the hospital at 1:03 PM on March 31st, 1993, 12 plus hours after the shooting. The investigation determined that the tip of the "dummy" shell had come dislodged and remained in the barrel unnoticed. The "blank" cartridge fired with enough force to propel the broken bullet tip out the barrel and into Brandon.

The official cause of death is listed as gunshot wound of the abdomen. His body was flown back to Washington State where he was buried on April 3rd next to his father in Lake View Cemetery. The next day a memorial service was held at his actress friend, Polly Bergen's house in the Hollywood hills where many celebrities attended including David Carradine, Kiefer Sutherland, David Hasselhoff, Lou Diamond Phillips and Steven Seagal.

Ironically, due to the inordinate number of scenes involving gunfire, a special firearms consultant was hired to ensure the proper safety standards were followed. The Crow was eventually finished and was released on May 11, 1994, Surprisingly, or not, the film did quite well at the box office with a final total of over $50 million.
During the police investigation, detectives examined a plastic bag that contained the unloaded handgun and the spent shell casing. They later found that one of the "dummy" shells in the gun's case was missing its tip. The District Attorney's office apparently thought so. Authorities dismissed the possibility of premeditated murder and declined to charge any crew member with criminal neglect. The production company, Crowvision, may still be forced to pay unspecified fine for its part in the tragedy, and Linda Lee Cadwell, Brandon's mother, is suing several parties, including Crowvision and its parent company, Edward R. Pressman Film Corp, for negligence in her son's "agonizing pain, suffering and untimely death." The scenario outlined in Cadwell's lawsuit suggests that a bullet was accidentally lodged in the barrel of the weapon when the gun was used in the filming of a scene several weeks earlier. The bullet remained wedged in the barrel until it was propelled by blank ammunition into Brandon's stomach during the fateful scene on April 1, according to Cadwell's lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that the bullet was jammed into the barrel because crew members improperly manufactured their own dummy bullets (used in close-ups of the handgun) from live ammunition rather than waiting to buy them from a licensed firearms dealer. To create a makeshift dummy bullet from live ammunition, crew members would have pried the bullet tip from the casing and emptied the gunpowder. Then the tip would have been reattached to the empty casing, creating an impotent but realistic-looking cartridge. Because primer (the combustible powder that ignites the gunpowder would still remain in the cartridge, the weapons handler would fire the gun until all of the primers had been detonated. According to one publication's explanation of the incident, the primer in one of the dummy bullets was left intact although a weapons handler fired the pistol several times to detonate the primers. Moreover, the magazine asserts that this dummy bullet contained enough gunpowder residues to cause an explosive burst strong enough to drive the bullet tip into the barrel.

An actor who used the firearm in an earlier scene is alleged to have test-fired the gun, causing the small explosion that lodged the bullet into the barrel. When the dummy bullets were removed from the revolver's cylinder, no one apparently found it remarkable that one of them was missing its tip.
Although this scenario has been embraced by some publications and the Cadwell family, some gun experts remain skeptical.

"I really have my doubts," says Bob Forker, the technical editor for Guns & Ammo magazine. The problem with that scenario, he explains, is that primer and gunpowder residue wouldn't provide enough explosive power to drive a bullet completely into the barrel. The rifling of the barrel, which is necessary to impart spin on the bullet, creates a very strong resistance, Forker says. The implausible combination of alleged oversights by the crew also bothers Forker. Each miscue alleged in the lawsuit could have been nullified by an observant crew member at any point during the fateful chain of events. Yet time after time the crew apparently ignored strict gun-handling procedures and safety checks that should have been second nature to them.

In Wilmington, North Carolina, where Lee's shooting took place, District Attorney Jerry Spivey said he found no evidence that anyone intended to harm the young actor after examining the police report compiled by homicide investigators. Wilmington Detective Brian Pettus said the six-week probe into Lee's death involved over 700 man-hours of investigation. Altogether, about 3,000 pages of notes were compiled and approximately 50 people were interviewed, said Pettus. No indictments were handed down.

Brandon was 28 years old

THE PROBLEM: (1) "Dummy" ammunition was improperly 'hand crafted' from 'live' components. (2) Weapon was not initially nor continually inspected for load day to day. (3) Actor firing weapon did not 'offset" point of aim away from Lee and was not instructed properly by an experienced weapons specialist.

THE RESULT: Preventable death.

 

August 2003
Actor Kills Fellow Actor with "Prop" Gun
Mexican actor Antonio Velasco was killed on the set of a film being shot south of Mexico City when a "prop gun" being used by another actor turned out to have been loaded with real bullets instead of blanks. Flavio Peniche, the actor who fired the gun, was later arrested on suspicion of manslaughter and released on $40,000 bail. News reports said that Peniche had run to Velasco after realizing that he had shot him and tried to help. Another report said that Eduardo Martinez Sanchez, a producer of the film, titled The Scorpion's Vengeance, and a prop manager known as El Cepillo, disappeared after the incident.

THE PROBLEM: (1) Complete lack of professional firearms handling skills by property department. (2) LIVE ammunition was permitted on set. (3) Complete failure to follow common sense safety procedures involving firearms. (4) No certified, licensed or permitted weapons personnel were present on set.

THE RESULT: Preventable death.

 

The primary function of a weapons specialist for the entertainment industry is to provide SAFE HANDLING of ALL firearms on the set. Secondary to this function is choreographing each shot involving firearms (loaded or unloaded) to assure further safety among the cast and crew.

An on-set Safety Meeting should begin each day whenever firearms are to be used. The meeting should be called by the 1st A.D., turned over to the Weapons Specialist and should involve the entire crew. This is when ALL questions and concerns should be addressed.

Double and TRIPLE checking each firearm for load is absolutely necessary to guarantee the safe condition of the weapon(s) and the safety of those handling or in close proximity to the weapon(s).

You can always hire a 'friend' who was in the military, or someone who knows someone who allegedly has weapons experience. The true facts are that there is no substitute for experience and if you hire someone who is either unlicensed or under licensed, you run the risk of severe bodily injury or death occuring on your set.

 

November 2008

Teenager Shot with a Blank Dies 

Pistol meant as prop for school play ends life of St. George, Utah Boy.

Tucker Thayer was killed when he negligently shot himself with a .38 special caliber revolver loaded with blank ammunition. The firearm was being used to produce a sound effect for a high school play. The 'blank' round of ammunition was of the much older "wadded" variety, used decades ago in the film industry but abandoned when the safer 'crimped' style ammunition was invented. It is more than likely the young man placed the muzzle of the revolver against his head and fired, believing the blank to be a harmless noisemaker. The hot expanding gases propelled the cotton wadding into the young mans skull. Flame Cutting of the tissue and bone resulted.

THE PROBLEM: A minor child was in illegal possession of a firearm on school property without direct, expert adult supervision.

THE RESULT: Preventable Death

THE BOTTOM LINE

ALWAYS EMPLOY A LICENSED WEAPONS SPECIALIST!

This will not only insure the safety of the actors and crew but in most instances, the licenses will also lower your production insurance premium as well.

 

REMEMBER...Blank Firing Guns are REAL guns that have been modified to use blank ammunition. These firearms are to be considered extremely dangerous and should never be handled by anyone other than a legitimate firearms expert.

 

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The foregoing accounts are courtesy of MOVIE GUN SERVICES

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