In interviews for this week’s EW cover story on This Is It, Michael Jackson’s collaborators shared new details about the pop star’s final rehearsals for his planned comeback concerts and the day the shocking news of his death broke. Throughout the rehearsals, those around Jackson were often concerned about his health but didn’t see any major cause for alarm. Choreographer Travis Payne remembers, “Michael would come in and say, ‘I didn’t sleep last night.’ But then we’d be on set and you’d see he had his A-game, so you didn’t really question it.” As for Jackson’s apparent prescription drug abuse, director Kenny Ortega says, “Honestly, we were clueless.”

On June 25, when Jackson was rushed by paramedics to UCLA Medical Center, Randy Phillips, the president of the concert promotion firm AEG Live, followed the ambulance and watched as the emergency room team tried to save his life. “I’ll never forget this: There were all these people running around, frantically trying to revive him. [Jackson’s personal physician] Dr. Murray was in there, and he was completely a mess. A nurse came out and said, ‘Where is Mrs. Jackson?’ Michael’s parents weren’t there yet — they’d gotten lost. They’d gone to St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. The nurse said, ‘He’s on life support.’ I said, ‘What exactly does that mean?’ She told us he was brain dead but still breathing.” Phillips says he and Jackson’s manager Frank DiLeo informed Jackson’s children of their father’s death. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever lived through. I’ll never forget the look of fear in their faces.”

As doctors struggled in vain to save the singer, his collaborators on the concerts were waiting anxiously at L.A.’s Staples Center and trying to sort rumor from fact. The plan that day had been to rehearse a David Copperfield-style illusion that would serve as a transition between the songs “Dirty Diana” and “Beat It.” When the irrefutable news of Jackson’s death finally came, says Payne, “There was just this general feeling of numbness. People didn’t know how to process it.”

In the weeks and months that followed, those closest to Jackson were still struggling to make sense of his death — and his often troubled life. “I was in awe of his talent, but at the same time I pitied him, because I felt his life was so unfulfilled,” says Phillips. “He had been almost chased into this isolation.” Says Payne, “I knew Michael led a very lonely life at times, just because of the nature of who he was. But I choose to focus on the fact that now Michael is not suffering. Now he doesn’t have this daily struggle he had to be who he was. And the world is going to have his music and his art forever.”

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Photo Credit: Toru Hanai/Landov