By Melena Ryzik, nytimes.com
It’s the moment that Judith Hill has been replaying in her mind for the last 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 didn’t 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, Ms. 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 longtime friend and aide Kirk Johnson. They were bound for Paisley Park, Prince’s estate outside Minneapolis. Over vegetables and pasta, Prince and Ms. Hill discussed his performances that night, which turned out to be his last public concerts; other musicians like the 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 12:51 a.m. from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and was near Chicago, less than an hour from its destination, when Ms. 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 got Mr. Johnson, who was near the front of the plane. And when they couldn’t rouse Prince, they alerted the pilot, who called air traffic controllers in Chicago for help at 1:12 a.m., reporting an unresponsive man on board. “We knew it was only a matter of time; we had to get down,” Ms. Hill said. “We didn’t have anything on the plane to help him.”
Ms. Hill was “very freaked out,” she said, as they kept trying to wake him, shaking him and calling his name, while the plane descended. At 1:17 a.m., it made an emergency landing in Moline, Ill., where an ambulance met them. Paramedics and Mr. 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, Ms. Hill said, “which was such a relief to me, because I thought he was gone.” She had never seen anything like that happen to him and had no idea what caused his condition. Mr. Johnson’s lawyer declined to comment.
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.
Ms. Hill, a rising, Grammy-winning artist in her own right, 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.
When Prince introduced Ms. Hill to an audience at a private Paisley Park event in March 2015, he announced: “Ask your questions now. She’s going to be a superstar, and you won’t be able to talk to her,” according to The Star Tribune. He even arranged for her album to be sold at the Minneapolis record shop Electric Fetus. “He asked that we treat her album like we would treat his,” said Jim Novak, the store’s music buyer, who had known Ms. Hill to be around town regularly. She was photographed at the small, private memorial gathering of family and friends there for Prince.
“Now he’s gone, and I realize I was leaning on him a lot,” she said. “And that’s what’s scary. I’m on my own.”
She is leaning on his lessons still, she said, as she begins a short East Coast tour this week, with a show at the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan on Wednesday. “He was such a warrior, and it’s inspiring me to be that person,” she said.
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