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9: Twilight Zone Accident - Dead in the Water

Cody and Greg discuss a fatal accident that occurred during the filming of the Twilight Zone movie. They discuss the accident itself, and also the legal fallout it caused in the filmmaking industry.

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Episode Information

In this minisode, we’ll be discussing a fatal accident that is colloquially known as the “Twilight Zone Accident”. This unfortunate incident occurred during the filming of the Twilight Zone movie in 1982. This accident caused not only the deaths of multiple people on set during the filming, but also caused drastic changes in the laws surrounding the film industry. And if you guys have listened to all of our episodes, you might know that I sure do love a juicy bit of historical legal development. 

Background

Well, the Twilight Zone was an American television program that initially aired 5 seasons between 1959 to 1964. However, it was also rebooted multiple times, most recently in 2019. The show is considered episodic, as in it doesn’t actually have a recurring storyline. Each episode is a self-contained story that generally stays in the horror, suspense, or psychological thriller genres, and normally ends with a plot twist and some type of moral. 

 

The Twilight Zone movie, which was named Twilight Zone: The Movie, was a film produced by Steven Spielberg that was essentially a collection of 4 Twilight Zone episodes. Three previous episodes of the series were recreated for the film, with one original episode included. The original episode is the one we’ll be covering today.

 

This particular episode was written and directed by John Landis, a real dick of a dude, as we’ll soon see. The episode involved a white racist by the name of Bill Conner (played by the actor Vic Morrow) who skips through time into different racist situations where he is actually the victim. For instance, he is teleported to Nazi-occupied France and chased by SS officers, then sent to the deep south in the US and about to be lynched by the KKK for being black. 

 

The scene we’ll be discussing was actually pulled from the film. In this scene, Morrow’s character is transported to Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Here he is seen as a Vietnamese man who must protect two Vietnamese children from American soldiers. A part of this scene involved Morrow carrying the two children over his shoulders while he waded across a river and a helicopter flew just above them. In reality, the director actually just wanted to use this particular scene to show off a BUNCH of pyrotechnics.

 

Now before we get into the accident itself, I want to give a bit of background on the sleazy antics director John Landis pulled before the filming commenced. Obviously, for the script, Landis had to hire two child actors to play the two Vietnamese children. The two children hired were Renee Chen and Myca Dinh Le, aged 6 and 7, respectively. However, there were and still are many laws surrounding child labour. Firstly, children of this age couldn’t work past a certain time in the evening. If they were to do so, then a permit must be given. But Landis felt like this was a waste of time and decided to just pay the children under the table. (They were both paid $500.)

 

Further to this, as we said earlier, Landis was using this particular scene to show off the cool, hip, 80s pyrotechnics. And he thought that he likely wouldn’t be approved for a child labour waiver if the scene used so many explosives and was filmed so late at night. (It was filmed at 2:00 am.)

 

It also seems that Landis didn’t really want anyone knowing about the pyrotechnics. He actively hid the fact that the children would be in a scene using a large number of explosives. He, as well as the associate producer of the film, hid this fact from the casting agents, the onset firefighters, and even the children’s families. He went so far to deceive those on the set of the children’s involvement, that he actually asked the children to hide from a fire safety officer whenever he would come near. 

Accident

As we said, the scene was to take place in Vietnam. So, the studio needed an area that could double Vietnam well enough to play the part. They decided to use the Indian Dunes, which was actually an area used for many different films. Apparently, this bit of land could double as anything from a desert to a deep forest. It was also far enough from the city that no city lights could be seen in the background. 

 

Again, this particular scene involved Morrow’s character carrying the children across the river over his shoulders while a helicopter flew over them. This helicopter was actually flown by a legitimate Vietnam War veteran, Dorcey Wingo, a newcomer to the movie business. Wingo was to take the helicopter at about 25 ft above the ground and then rotate it 180 degrees. During rehearsals, Wingo had felt nervous about flying so low over pyrotechnics but did not make these fears known. However, other members of the crew did make their concerns known to Landis, although they were ignored.

 

The children were called to the set at around 2:00 AM to film this scene (which is very likely why Landis decided to not obtain a waiver.) As the filming began, Morrow was wading through the water with the two children on his shoulders. As the helicopter went to make its 180-degree turn, the mortar pyrotechnic effect was detonated allegedly too early. This hit the helicopter’s tail rotor, causing it to fail and the helicopter to the covered in flames. The helicopter began to spin out of control and fall towards the river. Unfortunately, Morrow dropped one of the children in the water, 6-year-old Chen. The helicopter crashed into the water and its right landing skid landed directly on Chen, crushing the 6-year-old to death. Simultaneously, the helicopter toppled and the main rotor blade came down on Morrow and the 7-year-old Li, decapitating both. Chen and Li’s family were on set and witnessed the entire incident.

 

As a very weird bit of information, Morrow was actually meant to tell the children, “I’ll keep you safe, kids. I promise. Nothing will hurt you, I swear to God.” Following this, the director, Landis, said that the two Vietnamese children were meant to be taken by SS officers after being saved by Morrow and shot before Morrow is sent to a Jewish concentration camp.

Trial

As you can imagine, there were a few pretty lengthy trials following the accident. Firstly, civil suits were brought by the families of the deceased against the movie studio and Landis. These were settled out of court for unknown sums. However, there were also criminal charges brought against Landis, Warner Bros., Wingo and a few other members of the film crew. It was claimed by many that Landis had knowingly placed the children in danger. All of the defendants in the trial admitted that child labour laws had been broken, but all claimed that the crash was an unavoidable accident. It took three years to get the case to trial, and it was headed by Deputy District Attorney Lee D’Agostino. 

 

D’Agostino was apparently quite the character in court. She pretty theatrically offered Landis tissues after he teared up during his testimony. Then hissed “murderer” at him in full view of reporters when he walked past her outside the courtroom. Finally, she summed up her case by stating, “It isn’t that John Landis decided to violate the law, it’s that he thinks he’s above it!”

 

Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to convict the men, and they were all acquitted of all serious charges.

Aftermath

Following the failure of the trial, Landis actually went on to die in the gutter after being stabbed to death by a mob of angry Vietnamese children. No, not really. He actually went on to make the film “Coming to America” which was a huge success that put all of his troubles pretty far in the past. Which I’d say is pretty unfortunate. 

 

I’m not sure what happened to the other co-defendants of the case, but I do know that the pilot Wingo apparently went on to do one further film in 1986. He also wrote a book on the accident and aftermath. But then he pretty much fell to history. 

 

However, although no one was charged with the accident, it actually forced multiple changes in the filmmaking industry. A revolution was developing behind the scenes when a vice-president of the company named John Silvia decided to develop a committee that would be charged with establishing the safety guidelines for every single aspect of filmmaking. This literally included all aspects, including scenes involving guns, underwater filming, vehicular filming, etc. This committee’s findings ended being referred to as Safety Bulletins which then was consolidated into a manual referred to as the Injury and Illness Prevention Program. This is still regularly updated to this day after any sort of accident. 

 

After these regulations were put in place, insurance companies actually started to get involved in films. Initially, film sets were seen as too unsafe and the insurance payouts were much more likely. However, since the studios were beginning to commit to ensuring safety on sets, insurance companies were more comfortable providing policies. This, in turn, meant that films, along with following the Injury and Illness Prevention Program guidelines, also had to make sure insurance companies were satisfied with the safety on set. 

 

Finally, the accident also pretty much invented the risk manager position in filmmaking. Which is, obviously, just a person that makes sure that the risk onset is properly managed.

Conclusion

It’s good to see change come from tragedy. However, it’s still important to remember that it came at a great cost. The accident was an absolute tragedy with the death and decapitation of 3 people, and I think we can all agree that that was truly unfortunate.

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