Exclusive: Daniel not first actor injured by opera stunt

February 6, 2013 4:46:35 AM PST
A fire-breathing stilt walker at Chicago's Lyric Opera was expected to be released from the hospital Thursday after he was severely burned during a dress rehearsal Monday.Wesley Daniel's father, Clifton Truman Daniel, told Lyric's deputy general director Drew Landmesser Tuesday morning his son will likely be home Thursday, and although he has second-degree burns around his mouth, his throat and lungs are fine.

"It sounds as though what his doctor is saying that second degree burns he has around his mouth are akin to a severe sunburn. A lucky young man," the Lyric's deputy general director Drew Landmesser.

Daniel was the second person called in to perform the stunt in the production after the first actor was injured by fire.

Circus performer and actor Matt Roben ignited his mustache while demonstrating the stunt for the fire marshal and suffered minor injuries a little over a week before Daniel was injured, Roben said.

Some of the fuel hit hit Roben's mustache and singed it, he said.

In his 24 years of performing fire breathing, off and on, Roben said it was the first time he has had an incident.

Wesley Daniel is being treated at Loyola Medical Center. He is the great grandson of President Harry S. Truman.

Performers were five hours in to a five-and-a-half hour long opera that opens to the public Friday. Nearly 1,000 filled the auditorium and witnessed what many first thought was part of the show. It's a stunning stunt that went seriously wrong. The special effect had been approved by the Chicago Fire Department, Lyric Opera said.

"His head was engulfed in flames and he was center stage and in a panic," said audience member Edward Voci. "He was trying to put it out and then moved as quickly as he could on stilts. But then he had no choice but to just fall down."

"I saw his head get covered in flames, and I didn't really know what was happening," said performer Mia Rehwaldt.

The accident is being investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"We will conduct interviews," OSHA spokesperson Scott Allen. "Violations did occur."

Rehwaldt was on stage, steps from Wesley Daniel, when his attempts to blow fire backfired. It's a stunt that was rehearsed countless times, the Lyric Opera says.

"When he fell on the ground from his stilts it was really scary because it made a really loud thump," said Rehwaldt.

"Almost immediately, we brought in the fire curtain, stopped the rehearsal, and waited for the Chicago Fire Department to analyze the situation. They did a quick inspection, they allowed us to continue," said Landmesser.

Wesley Daniel's Facebook page features a video where he's casually practicing with friends.

It's a skill that takes years to perfect and circus and sideshow performer Tom Hill demonstrated how to do fire breathing.

Before fire breathers blow their first flame they take a series of safety precautions.

Hill said he uses a rag "to wipe my mouth to get any extra fuel that me be on my mouth".

He said he might know what went wrong.

"From the photo I saw it looks like there was a blow back where the flame came back toward him," Hill said.

Those in the theater community said they were encouraged by his last gesture before leaving stage - a thumbs-up.

"He'll get back on stilts in no time, I don't know about the fire breathing, but he'll get back on stilts in time," his sister Aimee Daniels said.

Wesley Daniel was initially listed in critical condition with burns to his face and throat: significant enough that he was transferred to Loyola's burn unit.

But, as they say, the show will go on. The opera's opening night is Friday. Although the Lyric Opera says this particular stunt will no longer be performed.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago issued the following statement Monday evening: "An actor sustained burns this afternoon at Lyric Opera of Chicago during a dress rehearsal. The actor, Wesley Daniel, was performing a fire-spitting effect while on stilts. He was wearing a flameproof costume and mask.

"Lyric's emergency plan was activated immediately. Trained fire guards extinguished minor flames immediately. The fire curtain was lowered. Lyric personnel called 911 and paramedics arrived within minutes. Chicago Fire Department commenced an immediate investigation, then allowed the rehearsal to continue. The actor is being treated at Loyola Hospital.

"The decision was made to remove the fire-spitting effect from performances.

"The effect had been approved by the Chicago Fire Department."