Singer saw Prince black out on plane

Singer Judith Hill was with Prince when he lost consciousness on a flight six days before he died.
Singer Judith Hill was with Prince when he lost consciousness on a flight six days before he died. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LOS ANGELES • It is the moment that Judith Hill has been replaying in her mind for the past two months: She was sitting on a plane with a man she loved, talking, having dinner, when suddenly he lost consciousness. She shouted his name: Prince. She shook him. But he did not come to.

Her swift reaction may have helped save Prince's life that night, six days before he died of an accidental overdose of the opioid painkiller fentanyl.

"His eyes fixed", just before he nodded off across a table from her, Hill, 32, recalled in an interview here, speaking for the first time about her presence on the April 15 flight from Atlanta, after Prince's two shows there.

Only one other passenger was on the private jet, Prince's long-time friend and aide Kirk Johnson.

They were bound for Paisley Park, the star's estate outside Minneapolis.

Over vegetables and pasta, Prince and Hill discussed his performances that night, which turned out to be his last public concerts; other musicians such as funk singer Betty Davis; and photography, one of Prince's hobbies.

According to flight-tracking reports, the chartered 1988 Dassault Falcon 900 took off at 12.51am from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and was near Chicago, less than an hour from its destination, when Hill witnessed Prince fall unconscious. If she had glanced away in that instant, down at her phone or purse, she might have thought he had simply dozed off.

"Thankfully, I happened to be looking into his face," she said.

She immediately alerted Johnson, who was near the front of the plane. And when they could not rouse Prince, they alerted the pilot, who called air traffic controllers in Chicago for help at 1.12am, reporting an unresponsive man on board.

"We knew it was only a matter of time; we had to get down," Hill said. "We didn't have anything on the plane to help him."

She was "very freaked out", she said, as they kept trying to wake him, shaking him and calling his name, while the plane descended. At 1.17am, it made an emergency landing in Moline, Illinois, where an ambulance met them. Paramedics and Johnson carried Prince, 57, into the vehicle and he was revived on the tarmac with a shot of Narcan, which is typically used to treat opioid overdoses.

Eighteen minutes after landing, the ambulance took him to nearby Trinity Moline Hospital. By the time they arrived, he was awake and talking, Hill said.

For the world, Prince's sudden emergency landing, initially attributed to the flu but later revealed to have been related to a painkiller overdose, was the first real sign of his abrupt decline.

He was an extremely private star who had hidden his pain - and his addiction to prescription drugs to treat it - from even his inner circle.

Hill, a rising, Grammy-winning artist, was an intimate and trusted collaborator. "I was with Prince the last two years of my life," she said.

She recorded and performed with him at Paisley Park, leaving her home near Los Angeles to spend half of most months there, and opened for him in concert, in Baltimore, Detroit and Washington.

He co-produced her 2015 debut album, Back In Time; advised her as she disentangled herself from a major-label record contract and was helping plan her tour.

Asked if their connection was romantic, Hill said only: "There was a very intense relationship. I deeply cared for him."

In a conversation not long before he died, she said: "He told me that he loved me and that he would always be there for me."

She said that Prince had never revealed to her that he was in pain.

In person, "he was quick on his feet. Never said anything, that this is hurting, never a sign of struggle. That's why it's all very shocking".

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2016, with the headline 'Singer saw Prince black out on plane'. Print Edition | Subscribe