Some day, your grandchildren will ask you what the Astrodome was like, and you’ll watch their eyes glaze over as a torrent of happy memories tumbles forth—of baseball games, football games, Olivia Newton-John concerts, chuck wagon races, prayer meetings, and countless other examples of wholesome entertainment as envisioned by the 20th century. But not everything the Dome manufactured was G-rated, and it’s the darker memories—some perhaps occasioned by the Astrodome’s impending destruction—that will make the Eighth Wonder forever a mystery.
Jay Lee has one. The 52-year-old polymath—IT guy, musician, photographer, and radio host—grew up in South Park, and like many of us, has fond memories of going to the Dome and watching the hapless ’70s Astros with his father. “I remember the spectacle of it. I remember going inside and thinking it was amazing, just an incredible thing to see,” says Lee, so far offering Houstonian boilerplate. But among his recollections is one Dome memory that few others possess, or at least few others claim: the January 19, 1985 performance of the Thrill Show and Destruction Derby in which Karel Soucek was killed.
A young dude at the time, Lee didn’t particularly want to be in the half-full stadium that night, especially chaperoning a bunch of teenagers. But he was a substance abuse counselor at the time, and the kids, having stayed clean, had earned an outing.
“We were in the Astrodome, and had our seats, and everybody was having a good time,” says Lee, building the drama. “The next act was coming up. This guy was doing this stunt; he was going to be taken to the top of Astrodome and dropped into this water. I remember looking up and he was hanging there, swaying.”
Soucek, a 37-year-old Canadian stuntman, had been nailed inside a barrel (according to AP reports, although Lee remembers it more like a casket). The contraption had been hoisted to a spot 180 feet above the floor of the stadium, and was now dangling over a 9-foot-deep swimming pool, 12 feet in diameter. There Soucek hung for several minutes as officials waited for the barrel to stop spinning and stabilize. “It was going on and on and on, and nothing was happening,” remembers Lee. “The crowd was getting antsy…. It seemed like forever.”
“I had the sense that they thought, ‘Well, we have just gotta do it. Cross your fingers and let it go.’”
They did, and the barrel plummeted downward, crashing not into the pool itself but the rim. “It cracked like an egg,” Lee recalls. The scene generated scattered applause among some of the dimmer bulbs in the crowd, at least until paramedics arrived. The badly injured Soucek was cut out of the barrel in front of thousands, carted off in an ambulance, and the Thrill Show went on.
Soucek died from a crushed chest and abdomen and a fractured skull soon afterward, although no announcement about his condition was made over the Dome PA system. “We didn’t know if he was dead or alive at the time,” says Lee, adding, “We had a pretty good feeling he wasn’t going to make it.” He’s pretty sure he heard the whole story on the news the next day, but maybe not, his nearly 30-year-old Dome memory already fading into blurriness. He does know that he never went to another stunt show again—it wasn’t really his thing anyway. As for his young charges, they didn’t seem particularly traumatized: “They were a bunch of jaded teenagers with drug problems,” he says, by way of explanation.
Soucek’s death, ironically, will keep the Dome alive in Lee forever. As for the structure itself, Lee has made his peace with its demise. “There’s nothing today that inspires me about the Dome,” he says. “It’s just a shrine to what used to be.”