IT BEGAN AS ONE OF MITALLICA’S TYPICAL sonic and visual assaults. Accompanied by an arsenal of pyrotechnic effects, the reigning kings of heavy metal were performing before 55,000 fans at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium on Aug. 8 when James Hetfield, 29, the group’s lead singer and rhythm guitarist, took a near-fatal misstep. As a series of 12-foot-high special-effects flames shot up from under the front lip of the stage, Hetfield mistakenly strayed into their path and for one terrifying moment “was completely engulfed,” recalls drummer Lars Ulrich, 28.
Hetfield, who had misunderstood last-minute plans to expand the number of half-pound aluminum powder charges, was shielded from the full blast by his large, double-necked ESP guitar. But the deflected 3,200-degree flame shot up his left side, searing his hand and arm, burning off his eyebrows and singeing his face and hair. As he rolled across the stage to put out the flames, “I ran over and saw him holding his arm with his skin coming off,” says stage manager Zach Harmon, 30. Adds bassist Jason Newsted, 29: “If he had been breathing in, he would have been dead.”
Not for hours, however, would his Metallica mates know the full extent of his injuries. Rushed to a hospital in a band van, Hetfield had suffered deep second-degree burns on the back of his left hand and second-and third-degree burns on his arms. “I was in shock,” he says. “The nerves [in my arms] felt like they were exposed. My hand looked the worst. It bubbled up in two layers that came off.”
At the hospital, doctors sawed off a ring on his left hand (“Now that hurt”) and sedated the singer with morphine. “I hate drugs,” says Hetfield. “At the same time, if your hand is bubbling, you know that you need to go and get it fixed.”
Back at the stadium, meanwhile, the night continued to unravel. Guns N’ Roses, the concert’s coheadliners, who had postponed their previous three shows because of lead singer Axl Rose’s voice problems, called it quits after just 55 minutes, citing a faulty sound system. Angry fans began to riot, overturning concession stands inside the stadium and setting cars afire outside. Fearing for their safety, the remaining members of Metallica—Newsted, Ulrich and guitarist Kirk Hammett, 29—sought refuge in their dressing room, where they remained until 4:30 the next morning.
While the riots dominated the news, the band’s main worry was the future of the friend who, with Ulrich, had helped shaped Metallica’s no-frills, no-glitter style in L.A. 11 years before. “To see him really drugged up was weird,” says Ulrich. “You’re talking about a guy who drinks light beer, never loses control. But he was walking into walls and spacing out.”
Released from the hospital a day later, Hetfield began painful daily 90-minute therapy sessions in which his wounds were cleansed and dressed, and therapists put him on an exercise program to help him regain movement in his nerve-damaged arm and hand. Weeks would pass before he could again make a fist, let alone play guitar.
Returning home to Marin County, Calif., he was fitted with an elasticized net glove to minimize scarring. “I’m supposed to wear it for six months, 24 hours a day,” Hetfield explains. “The doctors say, ‘Don’t sweat. Don’t bump it. Don’t go too wild.’ But I’ve pushed to the edge. The pain is pretty much gone. All I have to do now is put aloe on and a lotion to keep my skin moist so it doesn’t crack.”
Although Hetfield saw three doctors before finding one who said what he wanted to hear—”You will play guitar again”—he was back onstage in Phoenix 17 days after the accident, on Aug. 25, when Metallica resumed its tour with stand-in John Marshall, 30, in Hetfield’s guitar slot. Limited to vocals at first, Hetfield was strapping on his guitar by September for encores and power-chording through Metallica’s hit “Enter Sandman.” With Metallica scheduled to tour Europe this month, Hetfield hopes “to be fully recovered and play the whole set” by the end of the tour in December.
Apparently he has already recovered from any psychological wounds. “When I went back for the first time and those flames went up, my heart raced,” he admits. “It’s like when you’re a kid; if something scares you, you go do it anyway. I’m not going to fire the pyro guy. It was my mistake too, so I’m going to learn from it. That’s the Metallica way.”
MICHAEL SMALL in Oakland