PHILADELPHIA — As a star of MTV’s “Jackass” franchise, Ryan Dunn made a career out of cheating death, one cringe-inducing, skin-crawling stunt after another.
Early Monday on a Chester County, Pa., highway, that daredevil streak caught up with him.
Dunn, 34, of West Chester, died just before 3 a.m. when his Porsche 911 GT3 veered off the westbound lanes of the Route 322 bypass in West Goshen Township. It careered through a guardrail, flipped over into a wooded ravine, crashed into a tree, and burst into flames.
Killed along with Dunn was his passenger, identified as Zachary Hartwell, 30, of West Chester, an Iraq War veteran who was recently married.
Investigators said the car might have been traveling at more than 100 mph on a road marked for 55.
“We are all just devastated,” said April Margera, mother of Dunn’s “Jackass” co-star Brandon “Bam” Margera, when reached at her Delaware County home. “It just seems impossible to believe.”
Dunn’s death — coming just days after the premiere of his latest TV project — drew a global response. Social networking websites were flooded with comments from his Hollywood cohorts, friends from his adopted home in Chester County, and fans around the world.
In addition to “Jackass,” Dunn appeared on the MTV shows “Viva la Bam” and “Homewrecker,” and just began hosting a new program — “Proving Ground” — on the G4 cable network last week.
The show, in which he tried to re-create famous movie stunts, was pulled from the network’s lineup Monday, a spokesman said.
Calling Dunn “a beloved member of the MTV family for more than a decade,” Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks, said Dunn “had the tireless, enthusiastic approach of your favorite middle school friend. ... The ’Jackass’ brotherhood will never be the same.”
Investigators spent Monday morning combing the crash site, near the Route 322 bypass’ intersection with Pottstown Pike. By day’s end, they had not issued an official cause.
They were only able to identify Dunn, police said, because of his distinctive bushy beard and tattoos.
But evidence of his violent end remained scattered across the site late into Monday morning. Nearly 150 feet of skid marks suggested Dunn may have been trying to take the Pottstown Pike exit when his car left the roadway. The fiery crash ripped his Porsche into warped and blackened pieces, leaving it almost unrecognizable except for a door flung from the chassis and left unburned.
Dunn had a love of fast cars, and a history of citations for reckless driving. He was arrested for driving under the influence in 2005 in Chester County; the charge was dropped.
Hours before the crash, Dunn had posted a photo to his Twitter account showing himself drinking with two other men. Unidentified friends told the celebrity gossip website TMZ.com that Dunn had consumed at least three beers and three shots of liquor at Barnaby’s of America in West Chester late Sunday.
Bar manager Jim O’Brien said Dunn came in late that night with a small group of friends, but did not appear intoxicated.
“He was never a hard-core drinker,” said O’Brien, who counted Dunn among his regulars. “He was always respectful. He wasn’t the guy you saw in the movies.”
Dunn moved from Ohio to West Chester at 15 and met “Bam” Margera on his first day at West Chester East High School. Their friendship proved to be enduring, if hazardous to their health.
Along with a crew of fellow stuntsters known as the CKY Crew — for “Camp Kill Yourself” — the two risked their necks to film death-defying, often vulgar tricks that became a hit in Philadelphia underground skateboarding circles and an inspiration for the “Jackass” series.
In one sketch, Dunn — calling himself “Captain Undies” — ran around town covered only in diapers and a cape.
In 1999, Johnny Knoxville, a friend of Margera’s from California, came calling, hoping to use some CKY videos in a new television show for MTV.
When “Jackass” premiered in 2000, Dunn was working as a welder and a gas station attendant, but the show quickly turned him, Margera, and Knoxville into celebrities, spawning three lucrative movies.
Throughout the show’s two-year run on MTV, Dunn often served as the voice of reason, questioning the sanity of his co-stars in their frequent attempts to one-up each other with bonehead antics. But when it came to fast cars, there was no stopping him, they said.
On the commentary track to the first “Jackass” film, Margera noted Dunn’s reputation for bad driving. He once flipped a car eight times into oncoming traffic with Margera inside.
Years later, he and Knoxville launched a golf cart into a plastic statue of a giant pig. Instead of crushing under the weight of the cart as the pair expected, the statue sent the cart airborne, injuring both.
Those close calls stood at the forefront of the minds of many fans who gathered at the crash site Monday afternoon. Passersby left flowers on the highway’s shoulder.
So many came to view the scene, West Goshen Township Police Chief Michael J. Carroll said, that officers had to be redeployed hours after clearing the wreckage just to control traffic.
Chris James, 23, of West Chester, said he often saw Dunn around town, and that “he never got too good for anyone. He was a local celebrity, but he was still one of us.”
A crowd of 30 gathered at the Note, a West Chester bar owned by Margera, who was in Phoenix making promotional appearances.
None of the group’s members — many of whom were already tipsy by 6 p.m. after drinking to Dunn’s memory — was willing to comment.
One man — who said he was too upset and inebriated to give his name — had just returned from a tattoo parlor where he had both victims’ initials inked onto his left arm.
Johnny Knoxville summarized the feelings of many in a post on his Twitter account.
“Today, I lost my brother Ryan Dunn,” he tweeted Monday. “... I love you buddy.”
(c) 2011, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer’s World Wide Web site.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.