In 1991, Kirk Douglas survived a fatal crash that took the life of two men when his helicopter collided with a small airplane

By Gabrielle Chung
February 06, 2020 12:23 AM
Advertisement

Before passing away on Wednesday at the age of 103, Kirk Douglas had a brush with death that he said had “forever changed” his life.

In his 2000 memoir Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning, the Hollywood icon opened up about the mid-air collision on Feb. 13, 1991, that took the lives of two men. As one of the three survivors of the fatal crash, Douglas wrote that the incident made the date “the most important day of my life.”

On the fateful day, Douglas was a passenger in a helicopter flown by his pilot friend, cartoon voice artist Noel Blanc, and copilot Michael Carra. The trio was taking off at California’s Santa Paula Airport when it collided with a Pitts aerobatic plane flown by Lee Manelski, 47, and student pilot David Tomlinson, 18, which was taxiing down the runway in a touch-and-go safety exercise.

Tragically, Manelski and Tomlinson died in the incident.

Kirk Douglas
Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images

“I’ll never forget the date,” he said in the book. “In that horrible fraction of a second, 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. Carried by its fateful momentum, the little plane continued to rise forward into the blue sky. An instant later, the fuel caught fire. The Pitts exploded in a fireball.”

Without its rotors, Douglas’ helicopter fell 20 to 40 feet from the sky and slammed into the tarmac, according to the Los Angeles Times at the time. The airplane crashed about 200 feet down the runway.

“But we were alive in the tangled wreckage. David and Lee were dead in the smoldering remains. At that moment I was unconscious,” Douglas wrote in his book. “I didn’t know that from this day forward I would be asking: Why did they die? Why was I alive?”

The actor said in the book that a flight mechanic named Darryl bravely ran towards the wreckage and turned off the helicopter’s motor to prevent it from exploding, though he barely remembered anything after the collision.

Kirk Douglas
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

“Often, when I am asked about the accident today, people want to know what I experienced at the moment. Did I see a long tunnel with a blazing white light at the other end? Sorry, I saw and heard nothing. If it was there, I missed the show,” he wrote. “I have no remembrance of being pulled from the wreckage, put in an ambulance and brought to the emergency room. I have no recollection of X-rays, CAT scans and the doctors’ examinations.”

Douglas said one of the few things he did remember was learning the names of the two victims from his hospital bed. “Somewhere out there, not too far from where I lay, the lives of the people who loved them were forever changed… and now mine had as well.”

On March 7, 1991, three weeks after the crash, Douglas received the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award. At the time, he told the crowd that he did not see his life flash before his eyes when he crashed, “But thank God … I got a second chance to see it tonight.”

Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE’s free weekly newsletter to get the biggest news of the week delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Douglas’ son, actor Michael Douglas, confirmed to PEOPLE that his dad had died at 103 on Wednesday.

“It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103,” the statement read. “To the world, he was a legend, an actor from the golden age of movies who lived well into his golden years, a humanitarian whose commitment to justice and the causes he believed in set a standard for all of us to aspire to.”

“But to me and my brothers Joel and Peter he was simply Dad, to Catherine, a wonderful father-in-law, to his grandchildren and great grandchild their loving grandfather, and to his wife Anne, a wonderful husband,” the Behind the Candelabra star continued.

Kirk and Michael Douglas
Kevin Winter/Getty

“Kirk’s life was well lived, and he leaves a legacy in film that will endure for generations to come, and a history as a renowned philanthropist who worked to aid the public and bring peace to the planet,” the statement said.

“Let me end with the words I told him on his last birthday and which will always remain true,” he concluded. “Dad- I love you so much and I am so proud to be your son.”

The movie legend is survived by his wife of 65 years, Anne, and his sons Michael, Joel, and Peter.