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How a Helicopter Crash Changed Kirk Douglas

'From this day forward I would be asking ... Why was I alive?'
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 6, 2020 10:45 AM CST
In this Dec. 5, 2014, file photo, Kirk Douglas poses for a portrait in Beverly Hills, Calif.   (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP, File)

(Newser) – Not even two weeks after a helicopter crash killed an NBA legend, news outlets are revisiting a 1991 helicopter crash that nearly killed a legendary actor. Kirk Douglas, who died Wednesday at age 103, said his life was forever changed when the helicopter he was traveling in collided with an aerobatic plane at California's Santa Paula Airport on Feb. 13, 1991, per USA Today. Douglas, then 74, survived the midair crash along with helicopter pilots Noel Blanc and Michael Carra. But the plane's occupants—47-year-old Lee Manelski and 18-year-old student pilot David Tomlinson—weren't so lucky. "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," Douglas wrote in his 2000 memoir, Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning, per People. "An instant later ... the Pitts exploded in a fireball."

Douglas didn't remember the helicopter plummeting 20 to 40 feet, leaving him unconscious with back and rib injuries, or much of the aftermath. Still, this was "the most important day of my life" and changed it "forever," he wrote. "From this day forward I would be asking: Why did they die? Why was I alive?" The actor, who would suffer a severe stroke five years later, devoted more time to charitable causes, got professional help for survivor's guilt—he would later say his life was spared "because there was still some mission that I must fulfill"—and came to see his brush with death as a lesson. "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,'" he wrote. (Read more Kirk Douglas stories.)

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