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Injured 'Spider-Man' actor wants to fly again

Christopher Tierney suffered a fractured skull, a fractured shoulder blade, four broken ribs and three broken vertebrae when his safety harness was accidentally left unclipped.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The actor badly hurt after plunging more than 30 feet in front of a shocked audience watching the Broadway musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" says he's itching to heal and slip back into the web-slinger's costume.

"I can't wait to get back to the show. I love being Spider-Man," Christopher Tierney said in a phone interview Monday afternoon from The Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in Manhattan.

Tierney suffered a fractured skull, a fractured shoulder blade, four broken ribs and three broken vertebrae on Dec. 20 when his safety harness was accidentally left unclipped during a preview performance.

The $65-million show — the most expensive ever on Broadway — has been plagued by technical glitches, cancellations, money woes and three other injuries, including a concussion and two broken wrists. Last month, a lead actress bowed out.

Tierney, 32, blames his injuries on a freak accident and doesn't accuse the producers or the creative team of carelessness. The team is led by Tony Award-winning director and book co-writer Julie Taymor of "Lion King" fame.

"This one was a bad accident. It is somebody's fault — it was a collective fault — but it's not the producers, it's not Julie," he said. "They would give us the shirts off their backs if it was the last thing they had to make sure we were OK."

The state Department of Labor, which must vet all stunts, is investigating the accident and still hasn't determined the cause. Tierney said the show has become even more safe since his 35-foot plunge into the orchestra pit.

"Now the approach to safety is above and beyond," he said, laughing. "It's almost too safe now."

"Spider-Man" was Tierney's Broadway debut. He had previously worked with the Houston Ballet, Ballet New England, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and danced in the national tour of Twyla Tharp's "Movin' Out" and was in the North American premiere of "Dirty Dancing" in Toronto.

He had already worked with both Taymor and "Spider-Man" choreographer Daniel Ezralow in the film "Across the Universe" and was this time cast in a number of roles in addition to the main Spider-Man aerial stunts. He also played the part of a super villain, a bully who torments Peter Parker, and a dancer. He hopes to return to the stage when he feels strong enough.

"Each day there's progress. I'm up and walking around with very little pain," he said. "Thank God it's not turning out as serious as it could have been. I mean, I did break a whole bunch of bones, but I'm up and walking."

The accident that left him in a back brace and with eight screws in his back happened only seven minutes before the end of the performance. Dressed as Spider-Man, Tierney, who that night had already swung multiple times at 40 mph and wrestled with the Green Goblin over the audience, simply jumped from a ledge as the show was wrapping up. But this time he wasn't connected to anything.

"I never thought that I would ever not be attached. When I went to do the jump, I always go for it, so I was shocked that I just kept on going," he recalled. He says he remembers falling and prepared to brace for impact.

Then he lost consciousness for about 10 seconds.

"I came to and I was completely coherent. I just wanted to get up and walk it off," he said. "I came to and immediately I could move my legs. I could move my hands. I'm like, 'Good. Fine. I'm not paralyzed. We're good to go.'"

The musical's medical team didn't agree and kept him immobilized. Still in his hero costume, Tierney was rushed to a hospital and underwent back surgery. He spent Christmas at Bellevue Hospital.

"This just wasn't one of those things that we ever thought would be a problem," he said of being untethered. "I would never think that the rope wouldn't have been attached to the back of the stage. It was a real oversight."

The accident has left Nick Wyman, the head of the Actors' Equity Association, "disturbed and distraught." Responding to criticism that the organization hasn't done enough to protect the show's performers, Wyman said Equity members "have insisted on further safety protocols, backups, fail-safes, redundancies."

"I understand the wish to point fingers, to find someone who is culpable," Wyman said in a statement. "The more useful, productive exercise is to discover what we can do to improve things, to prevent a recurrence of this accident."

Rick Miramontez, a show spokesman, declined comment on the statement.

The accident hasn't hurt the show's box office. Last week, it was again sold out and grossed $1.9 million for its first eight-show week. The average ticket price was $121.

Natalie Mendoza, who recently had returned to the stunt-heavy show after suffering a concussion during its first preview performance on Nov. 28, pulled out for good last week, citing her head injury. Cast member T.V. Carpio will take her place.

Tierney, though, is already dreaming of returning. "It's the 4-year-old version of my dream come true to be Spider-Man. I loved him when I was a kid and I still love him now," he said.