James Hetfield Accident, What Happened That Evening When It Caught Fire

In August 1992, Metallica was riding high on the success of their Black Album, which had propelled them into the commercial spotlight. The band was in the midst of a North American tour, co-headlining with Guns N’ Roses, another hard rock titan of the era. The tour was a spectacle, drawing massive crowds, including a sold-out 55,000 capacity at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. The audience anticipated an unforgettable night, unaware of the dramatic events about to unfold.

Pyrotechnic Mishap

The band’s crew had briefed them earlier in the day about the evening’s pyrotechnics. They had decided to increase the number of half-pound aluminum powder charges, placing explosives at the front and outside wings of the stage to add more visual impact to the show. However, twelve songs into their set, frontman James Hetfield found himself engulfed in a 12-foot high torch of fire.

During the performance of “Fade to Black,” Hetfield was unsure of his position on the stage as massive plumes of flame erupted around him. He moved tentatively, and then disaster struck. “I’m a little confused on where I’m supposed to be,” he later recalled in an interview with VH-1’s Behind The Music. “And then the pyro guy doesn’t see me, and ‘whoosh!’ A big colored flame goes right up under me. I’m burnt. My arm, my hand, completely down to the bone. The side of my face. Hair’s gone. Part of my back. I watched the skin just rising, all these things going wrong.”

Immediate Aftermath

Drummer Lars Ulrich watched in horror from his drum riser as Hetfield was “completely engulfed” by flames burning at 3200 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature used to propel rockets. Fortunately, Hetfield was wearing his double-necked guitar, which deflected some of the flames away from the left side of his body. Despite this, his arm and hand were severely burned, and his eyebrows were singed. He fell and rolled on the stage floor to extinguish the flames, while the rest of the band stood frozen in shock.

Bassist Jason Newsted later told People magazine, “If he had been breathing in, he would have been dead.” The band’s bass tech, Zach Harmon, recalled, “I ran over and saw him holding his arm with his skin coming off.” The concert was abruptly cut short, and Ulrich had to explain the situation to the bewildered crowd. Hetfield was rushed backstage to wait for a ride to the hospital.

Painful Recovery

Backstage, amid the chaos, someone accidentally brushed against Hetfield’s burnt hand, causing him immense pain. “I remember I just lost it,” he recounted. “I screamed and punched him right in the nuts!” It took hours before the full extent of Hetfield’s injuries was known. He was transported to the hospital in a crew van, where doctors discovered deep second-degree burns on the back of his left hand and second- and third-degree burns on his arms.

The medical staff cut away the remnants of his clothes, sawed the ring off his left hand, and administered morphine to alleviate his pain. “It was pretty much the worst pain I’ve ever felt,” Hetfield said. His hand had blistered and bubbled up, creating layers of dead skin that had to be removed.

Riot Aftermath

Back at the stadium, Guns N’ Roses refused to bring their stage time forward to compensate for Metallica’s shortened set. When they finally took the stage, two hours after Metallica’s abrupt end, they managed only nine songs before Axl Rose stormed off, citing a faulty sound system. He told the crowd, “In case anybody here is interested, this will be our last show for a long time.”

The audience, feeling cheated by the evening’s events, erupted into a riot. They overturned concession stands, set fire to garbage cans, and wreaked havoc on the city’s streets. Cars were torched, a police cruiser was overturned, and even a street lamp was uprooted. The damage was estimated at $400,000, with ten people injured and at least half a dozen arrests. Meanwhile, Metallica’s remaining members were held backstage for their safety, unable to visit Hetfield at the hospital.

Return to Stage

Hetfield was released from the hospital the next day but faced a long and painful recovery. He began daily 90-minute therapy sessions to cleanse and dress his wounds, and he was put on an exercise program to regain movement in his nerve-damaged arm and hand. Despite the severity of his injuries, Hetfield was back on stage in Phoenix, only 17 days later, performing vocals while John Marshall filled in on guitar.

James Hetfield’s fiery accident in Montreal was a traumatic event that showcased the dangers musicians can face on stage. However, his swift recovery and return to the tour demonstrated his resilience and dedication to his craft. Metallica continued their tour, undeterred by the incident, and Hetfield’s determination became a testament to the band’s enduring spirit. The Montreal incident remains a significant moment in Metallica’s history, highlighting both the risks and the relentless drive of one of rock’s most iconic bands.

Conclusion

The fiery accident involving James Hetfield during Metallica’s 1992 Montreal concert was a stark reminder of the dangers inherent in live performances. Despite the severity of his injuries, Hetfield’s quick recovery and return to the stage exemplified his resilience and dedication to music. Metallica’s response to the incident, continuing their tour and supporting their frontman, showcased the band’s unwavering spirit and commitment to their fans. This event remains a pivotal moment in their history, reflecting both the perils and the passion that define their legacy.

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