Metallica’s live shows have a formidable reputation. However, in 1992 this reputation was put to the test in the most dramatic fashion during a show in Montreal when frontman James Hetfield caught fire in front of 55,000 fans.
The metal legends were riding high, travelling North America over the summer of ’92 playing huge stadiums on their co-headline tour with Guns ‘N’ Roses. Metallica was firmly sat on cloud nine following the astronomical success of their self-titled album the year before that became a number one record the world over.
For the show at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, the group decided to up the ante and the band’s crew briefed each member earlier in the day to inform them that they had increased the pyrotechnics from the already ridiculous stage set up they had in place. The crew made the call to call increase the number of half-pound aluminium powder charges used during the performance, situating the explosives at the front of the stage as well as on its outside wings.
The James Hetfield led iconic outfit were on the twelfth song of their 20-track set when, during ‘Fade To Black’, things suddenly went pearshaped. The frontman got carried away and lost in the moment which led to a lapse in concentration. Hetfield had accidentally stepped foot into a twelve-foot flame before abruptly taking a step back out of the flame.
Recalling the incident some years later to VH-1’s Behind The Music, he said: “I’m a little confused on where I’m supposed to be, and then pyro guy doesn’t see me, and ‘whoosh!’, a big coloured 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.”
Fortunately, Hetfield had his double-necked guitar wrapped around him which thankfully deflected some of the flames to the left side of his body and prevented the damage from being truly horrific. Hetfield’s arm and hand became seared as well as his eyebrows blistering into smoke. The frontman then instinctively made the decision to fall to the floor and roll to attempt to defuse the flames… all while his bandmates watched on in bemusement.
Bassist Jason Newsted later remembered to People magazine: “If he had been breathing in, he would have been dead.” The band’s bass tech Zach Harmon added: “I ran over and saw him holding his arm with his skin coming off.”
This roadblock obviously cut-short their set with Ulrich being gifted the bizarre job of explaining the situation to a confused audience who are unsure exactly what it is that they have just witnessed. Hetfield would recall what he remembers of being bundled backstage as he waited to be ushered away to the hospital: “I remember I just lost it,” Hetfield said before remembering his furious reaction to a person accidentally touching him backstage: “I screamed and punched him right in the nuts!”
Once he arriver at the hospital, the emergency services concluded that 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,” the Metallica singer said before adding: “The nerves felt like they were exposed. My hand looked the worst. It bubbled up in two layers that came off. It was pretty much the worst pain I’ve ever felt.”
Thankfully Hetfield was miraculously fixed up by the hospital staff and they postponed the next six dates of the tour before Metallica made their return to the stage just a little over a fortnight later in Arizona on August 25th.