Jeremy Renner's exclusive interview with Diane Sawyer: The accident, his recovery and more

The full interview aired Thursday, April 6, at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.

April 7, 2023, 10:11 AM

Jeremy Renner says he considers himself a "lucky man" as he recovers from his January accident involving his 7-ton snowplow.

In "Jeremy Renner: The Diane Sawyer Interview -- A Story of Terror, Survival and Triumph," which aired Thursday, April 6, at 10 p.m. ET on ABC, the "Avengers" star discussed everything from the specifics of the accident to his incredible recovery and the support that's carried him through the ordeal.

He also spoke about his mindset moving forward and how the accident in Reno, Nevada -- during which he broke more than 30 bones -- changed his perspective.

"I've lost a lot of flesh and bone in this experience, but I've been refueled and refilled with love and titanium," he told Sawyer.

'It felt like someone took the wind out of you'

In the special, viewers are taken back to the day of the accident, when Renner was initially using his snowplow to help his nephew Alex Fries, 27, move a family truck that had gotten stuck after a massive snowstorm.

After they successfully moved the truck, Renner turned the snowplow around and was, at one point, halfway out the cab door attempting to see if his nephew might be in danger between the vehicles on the icy road. He fell off, unsuccessfully tried to climb back in and then fell under the snowplow's track. Renner said he didn't set the parking brake before opening the snowplow door.

"I just happened to be the dummy standing on the dang track a little bit, seeing if my nephew was there," Renner said. "You should be inside the vehicle when you're operating [it,] you know what I mean? It's kind of like driving a car with your foot outside the car ... It is what it was. And it's my mistake, and I paid for it."

Actor Jeremy Renner sits down with Diane Sawyer for the first interview since his life-threatening snowplow accident.
ABC News

Renner said he remembers the pain of being run over, claiming he was "awake through every moment," as he was crushed on the ice and asphalt, under the machine. "It felt like someone took the wind out of you," he said.

Fries said he saw his uncle lying face down "in a pool of blood" around his head. "He wasn't responsive because when I ran up to him, you know, I didn't think he was alive," he said. "It was pretty terrifying to see the person you look up to [so] much, to be like that, to see them like that."

Fries ran to neighbor Rich Kovach's home to get help after noticing the garage door was slightly ajar. Kovach then called 9-1-1 while Kovach's partner Barb Fletcher applied pressure on Renner's wounds with towels.

"It was the amount of blood," said Kovach, explaining that Renner was unrecognizable. "He was just in such pain and the sounds that were coming out of him. And so much blood in the snow. When I looked at his head, it appeared to be cracked wide open. I knew it was extremely serious."

Neighbors Rich Kovach and Barb Fletcher sit down for an interview with Diane Sawyer in this screengrab from "Jeremy Renner: The Diane Sawyer Interview -- A Story of Terror, Survival and Triumph."
ABC News

"It was a horrible sound to listen to someone -- just literally watching somebody die in front of you, and you feel so helpless," Fletcher added.

Fletcher said Renner kept closing his eyes but she didn't want him to shut them and "drift off." She added at one point, Renner got "clammy" and turned a "gray, green color" and she felt she "lost him for a second."

If I was there on my own, that would've been a horrible way to die. And surely I would have...

Renner said he wouldn't have survived without his nephew, Kovach and Fletcher.

"If I was there on my own, that would've been a horrible way to die" he said. "And surely I would have. Surely. But I wasn't alone. It was my nephew, sweet Alex. And the rest of the cavalry came."

Assessing the damage following the accident

Twenty-one minutes later, a Truckee Meadows Fire Engine was able to get up the snow-ravaged mountain to Renner. An ambulance arrived shortly after and medics were able to get Renner in the vehicle within five minutes. When the winds calmed down, a helicopter was able to land and fly Renner to a Reno hospital, where doctors classified Renner's state as red trauma, the maximum level of trauma.

Renner said he remembers being initially intubated. A doctor who assessed Renner's condition said that Renner broke more than 30 bones. One rib pierced Renner's liver.

"I saw one of the scariest things I've ever seen," said Renner's sister and Fries' mom Kym Renner, who was the first to arrive at the hospital. "We don't know if there was swelling in his brain, we don't know if his heart's still working, can he breathe on his own?"

"He was intubated, he was out," Renner's mother Valerie Cearley recalled. "His breathing -- was horrible."

While in his hospital bed, Renner remembered using his free hand to sign, "I'm sorry," to his family. "I signed that -- because I am, I'm sorry."

The actor said he was also still alert at that moment and began typing out "last words" to his family on his phone. In it, he asked his family not to let him "live on tubes, on a machine." He added that if he would have to live on drugs and painkillers, he told his family in his note to "just let me go now."

Leaning on his family for support

While in surgery, Renner's rib cage was rebuilt with metal; metal plates were also put in his face to rebuild his eye socket and rubber bands and screws were added to his jaw, he said. A titanium rod and screws were placed in his leg.

He dealt with crippling pain following and was unable to sleep for long periods, his sister said. "He was delirious, he was just miserable," she said. "And it hurt. He cried for misery, just 'cause he couldn't sleep. It was awful. Just awful."

Renner's family stayed by his side as he recovered.

Jeremy Renner lays in hospital bed as his nephew, Alex Fries, sits by Renner's bedside in this undated photograph taken from a Reno, Nevada, hospital following Renner's accident.
Jeremy Renner

"I just wanted him to hear my voice," said Renner's mom, who would read aloud next to Renner in his hospital bed.

Renner said his family helped him the most during this time -- and continues to help him. He said it was "beautiful" to see their faces when he came to. "It's beautiful to have -- to wake up to all those sweet faces."

It took an army to keep this old sucker alive.

During the special, the actor also got the opportunity to express his thanks to Kovach and Fletcher for their help at the scene of the accident.

"It took an army to keep this old sucker alive," Renner told them on FaceTime. "And I'm so grateful and forever in debt. If I was alone and no one was there, I'd be dead, I'd be dead right in front of your place."

Renner's commitment to his recovery

Since the accident, Renner says he has remained focused on making progress in his recovery every day, earning "wonderful little victories," he told Sawyer.

The actor, who was seated in a wheelchair during the interview, said he also hopes to regain sensitivity in parts of his body where he's lost it, including his face. He says he's also relearning to speak again after breaking his jaw.

While Renner believes his recovery is "all mental," his sister said he's making progress because of how stubborn he is, noting that he is "not going to let anything take him down."

The actor added, "I know I'm mentally strong -- I get that from my mom."

Along with support from his family, Renner said he's received plenty of support from his "Avengers" family as well. The actor said he received loving messages across social media, calls from his co-stars and visits from Anthony Mackie and Evangeline Lilly.

Renner's chiropractic sports physician, Dr. Christopher Vincent, told Renner that he's so "motivated to heal," which makes working with him so fun. Renner added that he doesn't see any other alternative than to heal and move forward.

Jeremy Renner receives physical therapy treatment at his home in Los Angeles in this screengrab from "Jeremy Renner: The Diane Sawyer Interview -- A Story of Terror, Survival and Triumph."
ABC News

However, Renner admitted that he has no issues with a stuntman taking over his stunts in his projects going forward.

"I'm 52, it's fine -- I've done enough," he said with a laugh. "I'm OK to do more, right? But, you know, I'm OK. I have no ego, like yeah, go for it. I don't care. I'll be in my trailer."

Turning pain into positivity

While Renner is staying positive each day as he regains feeling in parts of his body and works to walk on his own, he said that he is sometimes "triggered" by the painful memories from the accident, which he says he struggles with.

He said he is reframing the narrative of the accident. "I have no regrets -- I'd do it again," he said about the accident. "I refuse to have that be a trauma and it be a negative experience."

"That is the man I'm proud of, because I wouldn't let that happen to my nephew," Renner continued. "So I shift the narrative of being victimized or making a mistake or anything else. I refuse to be f****** haunted by that memory that way."

Renner's latest project is sharing his love of retooling machines in a new show called "Rennervations," debuting on Disney+ on April 12.

Renner said that his family has been what has helped him process the pain, both mental and physical.

"This is what I talk to my family about from all their perspectives, which are horrifying, that I put upon them," Renner added. "What we just endured -- that's real love. It's suffering -- but that feeds the seeds of what love is."

Jeremy Renner embraces his mother, sisters and nephew in a screengrab from the upcoming special, "Jeremy Renner: The Diane Sawyer Interview -- A Story of Terror, Survival and Triumph."
ABC News

Upon reuniting with his 10-year-old daughter Ava, who was protected from seeing her father in his severely injured state after the accident, Sawyer said, Renner explained not much needed to be said between them. He said his daughter told him she loved him and was scared.

Renner said his next goal is to be walking the next time his fans see him on the red carpet.

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