LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - This fall marks the 35th anniversary of what became known as one of the most tragic moments in the history of downtown Lexington.
In 1978, Lexington eagerly waited for the finishing touches on what would be, at the time, the tallest building in the city. But before the 22-story Kincaid Towers were finished, something tragic happened.
During the construction of the tower, a Hollywood movie company came to town to produce a film called 'Steel,' starring Kentucky native, the Six Million Dollar Man and former EKU football player Lee Majors.
In interviews prior to the shooting Lee Majors promoted the stunt. "For the final day's filming, George Kennedy is to fall from this building to his death," Majors said at the time. "His fall will be done by Hollywood motion picture stunt man, AJ Bakunas."
The script called for stunt-man AJ Bakunas to leap from the tower, a 323-feet drop, "We've been down here for 16-weeks preparing for this," Bakunas said in an interview. "You, and everyone else on the crew, and I'd like to thank everyone in Kentucky for their hospitality, for helping us out so much."
The doctor who was assigned to oversee medical attention on the movie set, Dr. Judson Chalkley, tried to stop the stunt, believing it was just too dangerous, "I told the producer, the director, I told AJ, I didn't think it was a good idea. We already had the movie in the can so to speak."
Bakunas had already jumped, on film, from the ninth story. But once he heard that a rival stunt man had broken his free fall record at another location, he insisted on re-shooting from the top story, which was 323 feet.
Former WKYT News Director Ken Kurtz said the station had four cameramen employed at the time and all four were assigned to shoot the jump. It was a big deal, according to Kurtz, "This was the first film in a major city in Kentucky, first time in Lexington."
As the cameras rolled, Bakunas made the jump. Traveling at a speed of 115 feet per second, you can hear in the video when Bakunas lands on the air bag below, the sound was concerning to those present.
Former WKYT cameraman BW Blanton was there that day, he said he knew immediately something was wrong. "When he hit, the ground shook beneath my feet," Blanton said.
Chalkley couldn't be there at the time of the filming. He was working the emergency room at Good Samaritan Hospital, but he had one of the paramedics relaying play by play on a walkie talkie, "They initially said everything was okay. And then there was an 'oh my gosh' moment when they realized the air bag had ruptured," Chalkley said.
Incredibly, Bakunas was alive, but critically injured.
Dr. Chalkley was there when Bakunas arrived at the emergency room, "When he initially presented to the emergency room, he grabbed my arm with a look of desperation. He grasped me really hard,he was a strong guy, and it was a very dramatic thing, but you could see in his eyes the fear," Chalkley said.
Incredibly, Bakunas' head and other organs were still intact, but his lungs were too badly damaged during the fall. He died the next day.
The excitement that had gripped he town, gave way to sadness. Kurtz recalls people who never knew AJ Bakunas still seemed to feel the loss. "The city took a real and personal interest in it. And there was definite sadness went he accident happened," Kurtz said.
Blanton still remembers the feeling amongst the crowd that day. "What was going to be a glorious moment, suddenly became a horrific event," he said.
It is still not clear why the air bag ruptured.
A comment made by Lee Majors following his interview with Bakunas just before his jump, makes that tragedy all the more chilling. "Now go back and keep preparing because I wanna keep you around. Well,it should be exciting, but one thing I'd like to know, are world records worth the risk? It's obvious to AJ Bakunas, it is. We'll see," Majors said to Bakunas before the jump.