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Stephen Colbert Opens Up about His Personal Connection to Kobe Bryant's Death

The host calls for action to prevent future helicopter crashes

Amanda Bell

WhenThe Late Show with Stephen Colbert returned with a new episode Tuesday evening, host Stephen Colbert joined his colleagues in taking time to honor the memory of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and the seven others who perished in a tragic helicopter crash on Sunday. And while his peers' tributes on Monday evening were reflective of the relationships each host had with Bryant in personal and professional capacities, Colbert's perspective on the matter was uniquely heart-wrenching.

First, Colbert invited bandleader Jon Batiste to talk about his experience being at Sunday evening's Grammys, which took place at Los Angeles' Staples Center, home of the Lakers, and featured some very emotional dedications to Bryant's legacy.

"That morning I was in Calabasas, as fate would have it. It reminds you of how much of this life is just a vapor. We're here, and even the mighty among us, those who seem like they'll live forever, the immortal ones can be gone" -- he snapped his fingers -- "just like that," Batiste explained. "And with all the greatness that he left in the world, it seemed like he had so much to go. And all of the people who were on the helicopter -- his daughter who had so much promise -- it just kind of all hit us at one time. And it was kind of hard to celebrate at the Grammys, to be honest. Everybody was in a very mournful, reflective mood, even amongst the great celebration. It felt as if we'd lost something very important and had been reminded collectively of something also very important that we all have to face." Batiste then remembered a time when he met Bryant and said, "he was just as ... personable in person as he was on the basketball court."

Late Night Hosts Pay Emotional Tributes to Kobe Bryant

Colbert then admitted that while he had never met Kobe Bryant himself, he did "feel a strange connection" to the basketball star due to his own family's tragic history.

"[It's] one that I wouldn't wish on anybody, but I do feel a strange connection to his family and his friends and those who love him and those who've gone through this particular tragedy, including not only the family and friends of Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant, but also the family and friends of John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester, Christina Mauser, and Ara Zobayan because I lost my father and two of my brothers when I was a boy to a plane crash that was also in heavy fog," Colbert said, referring to the fatal crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 212, which claimed the lives of 72 of the 82 people on-board in 1974.

"One of the terrible things about that shock and the heartbreaking unreality nightmare quality of someone huge in your life who just disappears, the center of your love disappearing in that moment is not knowing what happened," he continued. Colbert then revealed that he'd previously met someone who lost a loved one in a helicopter crash and found out from her that helicopters do not have black box recorders to aid in investigations. He then called for this tragedy to inspire a change in the National Transportation Safety Board's requirements of black boxes on helicopter flights.

"In the crash that killed my father and brothers ... we had a flight recorder. And because investigators knew what happened in that cockpit, new rules were created to save other peoples' lives, it's called the Sterile Cockpit Rule. So, flight safety could be improved. And I think it's crazy that helicopters don't have black box recorders. ... When helicopters go down, we don't know how to improve the helicopter. We don't know how to improve the flying of the pilots so this won't happen in the future. And I hope that -- while nothing will possibly improve this tragedy, while nothing will take away this heartache and this pain from this family who will be living with it for the rest of their lives, for all these families who will be living with a heartbreak and the need for love and support for the rest of their lives, for the pain that will never go away -- that perhaps someone can take action to make sure there are some ways to record what is happening in these helicopters so that it doesn't happen as often."

"To do nothing after helicopters go down like this and we lose greats like this, or we lose any person whose family is now in agony and in ignorance of what happened to their loved one, I think, is unconscionable," Colbert continued. "So, I hope the NTSB will do something to improve the conditions for helicopter pilots and the information they can get if a tragedy like this happens. Because these people are now in misery. Why compound their misery with mystery about what happened to their loved ones. It's better to know then not to know."

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert airs weeknights at 11:35/10:35c on CBS.