Fresh from their triumphant UK tour, Metallica had headed once more for Scandinavia where they'd played three shows at the Olympen in Lund (September 24, 1986), the Skedsmohallen (September 25, 1986) in Oslo and at the Sonahallen in Stockholm (September 26, 1986). It was approaching dawn on Saturday, the 27th of September 1986, and Metallica's two tour buses were on their way to do a fourth show in Copenhagen. The were traveling along a god forsaken road between the Scandinavian cities of Stockholm and Copenhagen. Apart from these vehicles, the route was deserted, there was no one else traveling at that early hour of the morning. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, just before dawn, at about 5:15 am, one of the coaches swerved violently to its right and started careening wildly down the wrong side of the road. It was out of control, and a crash was inevitable. On board were the four band members, along with drum tech Flemming Larsen, guitar assistants John Marshall and Aidan Mullen, and road manager Bobby Schneide
John Marshall: "We were on a two-lane road. The bus went off to the right, and I think the driver over corrected, cranking the wheel to the left to get us back on the road. The wheel grabbed, and the bus swung completely around. During this time, the tail of the bus was sliding, kind of fishtailing around and bouncing on its wheels. That was right when we all started to wake up. I think I bounced right out of my bunk. The bunks were like trays with foam in them. The foam was held in place by a wooden lip. When the bus started rocking, my back bounced across that lip. Afterwards, I could barely walk, it hurt so bad. The bus eventually slid to the dirt alongside the road. When the wheels caught, the bus rolled over on its side."
The bus's brief but horrific excursion came to a halt some 60 feet further up the tarmac. By this time, though, the vehicle was on its side and lying in a ditch by the side of the road near the small Swedish town of Ljungby.
During the unavoidable confusion that followed, the vast majority of the overturned bus's passengers managed to scramble free of the wreckage. Mullen and Larsen, who'd slept in right-side bunks, were pinned under the rubble for nearly three hours before the fire department jacked up the debris and rescued them. Those that emerged included three of the four members of the band. In truth, the survivors had been extremely lucky, as they'd all some how managed to escape with little more than minor injuries and shock. Lars broke a finger, James only suffered from minor superficial injuries and Kirk's eye was blackened. Kirk, who'd blacked out after being thrown from his bunk, snapped to consciousness and made his way through a side emergency hatch. Bobby Schneider, the tour manager, dislocated his arm, and another crew member had contusions.
Swedish police arriving on the scene of the accident immediately arrested the driver as a matter of routine. They later released him without charging him after further investigation revealed that the cause of the accident was black ice on a nasty bend in the road. This episode was simply a tragic and cruel accident that killed the way Metallica was building.
"We were all sitting out there in 35 degree weather, with me in my socks and underwear before someone gave me a blanket. I remember Kirk and James yelling at the driver. By then, everyone had begun to realize that something was wrong with Cliff. I remember James walking up the road a bit to see if there was ice on the road, because the driver had claimed he'd slid over a sheet of ice. Kirk was crying." ---John Marshall---
Unfortunately, however, there had been one fatality in the accident. The deceased individual turned out to be one of the group. Cliff was sleeping on the top level of the right rear bunk in the bus when the bus started to roll and he was thrown out of the bus window. The bunks had toppled like match sticks, teetering into one another and collapsing into what resembled a pile of kindling.He was crushed by the bus in the accident and died immediately on contact. So, tragically, in the short space of those few dreadful seconds on that lonely Swedish road, Metallica's dreamlike existence was suddenly transformed into a hellish nightmare. Their 24 year-old bass player, Cliff Burton, was dead.
"I saw the bus lying right on him. I saw his legs sticking out. I freaked. The bus driver, I recall, was trying to yank the blanket out from under him to use for other people. I just went, 'Don't fucking do that!' I already wanted to kill the guy. I don't know if he was drunk or if he hit some ice. All I knew was, he was driving and Cliff wasn't alive anymore."
"I just recall our tour manager Bobby saying, 'Okay, let's get the band together and take them back to the hotel.' The only thing I could think was, 'The band? No way! There ain't no band. The band is not "the band" right now. It's just three guys." --- James Hetfield - 1993