Mechanisms of death among patients who died within 18 h of enrollment in the Thrombolysis in Myocardial Infarction Phase II (TIMI II) study were analyzed. Of 3,339 patients enrolled, 32 died within the 1st 4 h and 31 died within the subsequent 14 h. Thirteen of the 63 patients had shock at enrollment; 22 had advanced hemodynamic compromise without shock and 28 initially had minimal to no compromise. Prior infarction was present in 16 patients (25%). Pump failure was responsible for 39 early deaths (62%), ventricular rupture for 10 (16%), arrhythmia for 8 (13%) and complications of therapy for 6 (10%). Nine of 720 patients randomized to immediate intravenous beta-adrenergic blocking agent therapy had an early death compared with 6 of 714 assigned to deferred beta-blocker therapy. Thus, mortality is highest in the early hours after myocardial infarction, even in patients treated with thrombolytic therapy and is most frequently due to pump failure. These results imply that efforts to reduce mortality during this critical time period should be directed at prevention, limitation or palliation of early pump failure.