Summary: Burning Man experienced its first known death from a man actually running into the flames during signature burning of the “man” event.
The annual Burning Man Festival in Nevada suffered its first casualty during the signature ceremony of burning the man. A man was able to break through a barrier of security officers to run into the giant wooden effigy that had been set ablaze, later dying from the burns he sustained.
An investigation has been launched into the death of 41-year-old Aaron Joel Mitchell but is proving to be difficult since all the festival goers are packing up to return to their homes. Mitchell somehow got through the layers of security officers the festival provides to prevent this kind of incident from happening.
Mitchell died just hours after he was pulled from the flames. Pershing County Sheriff Jerry Allen estimates around 50,000 people were present when firefighters pulled him out. They airlifted him to the UC Davis Burn Center in California but his burns were too extensive. An official toxicology report has still being performed but they were able to rule out alcohol as the cause of his decision to run into the fire. “We don’t know if it was intentional on his part or if it was just kind of induced by drugs,” Allen said. “We’re not sure of that yet.” Mitchell was a U.S. citizen and had a home in Oklahoma but was living with his wife in Switzerland, according to the sheriff’s office.
Burning Man is a nine-day festival that takes place in the Black Rock Desert, which is 100 miles north of Reno. The festival cancelled smaller burns through noon on Sunday but was still going to perform their temple burn, the closing event of the festival. It is estimated that around 70,000 people attend the festival to celebrate art and music.
The festival was offering emotional support counseling on site, explaining, “Now is a time for closeness, contact and community. Trauma needs processing. Promote calls, hugs, self-care, check-ins, and sleep.” Mitchell was injured during the event where a 40-foot effigy made of wood was burned, symbolizing rebirth. This event generally occurs on the Saturday before Labor Day. On Sunday, there is a burning of a temple. Monday is when attendees pack up.
Rescuing Mitchell was hampered because the structure was starting to fall apart and fall. The sheriff’s office said, “Rescuers had to leave him to allow the structure to fall and provide for rescuer safety before they could go back into the flames to extract Aaron from the debris.”
People have tried to run into the fires before, causing the festival to add extra security. Allen said the security personnel act as a human chain to prevent people from entering the fire. The previous reports of injuries were from people trying to get a piece of the debris to keep as a token. This is the only known fatality in the past 15 years since the festival moved from San Francisco to the Nevada desert.
Allen explained, “People try to run into the fire as part of their spiritual portion of Burning Man. The significance of the man burning, it’s just kind of a rebirth – they burn the man to the ground, a new chapter has started. It’s part of their tenants of radical self-expression.”
Over the years, the event has gained popularity, causing an increase in crimes committed at the event such as car crashes and drug use. The festival is known for unique artwork, concerts, offbeat theme camps, and other entertainment. The events are influenced by 10 main principles: radical inclusion, self-reliance, self-expression, civic responsibility, gifting, leaving no trace, community cooperation, decommodification, immediacy, and participation.
Have you ever gone or wanted to go to Burning Man? Tell us in the comments below.
To learn more about other burns people have experiences, read these articles:
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- British Teen Dies from Burns Sustained at Birthday Party
- Lawsuit Claims Old Spice Burns Men’s Armpits