9 Ways to Die at Burning Man

by Whatsblem the Pro

The Craig Nielson Memorial Intersection at Burning Man - Photo: Danger Ranger
The Craig Nielson Memorial Intersection at Burning Man – Photo: Danger Ranger

The motto “keep Burning Man potentially fatal” is more than just humor; it’s a reflection of the fact that Black Rock City, for all its rules and regulations, began as an Autonomous Zone. Likewise, the warning on the back of each and every ticket: YOU MIGHT DIE, and that’s your responsibility.

It’s kind of an odd responsibility to have, given that the corporation that runs Burning Man ostensibly began as a response to a string of grisly deaths on and near the playa. You’d think that if co-opting an Autonomous Zone was a proper and necessary response to those deaths, the Org would want to explicitly take responsibility for people dying at Burning Man. . . but the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, so the Org gets to put a fence around everything and sell tickets and make rules, but the potentially lethal nature of the event is still your problem and yours alone.

Keeping Burning Man fatal means hanging on to as much personal autonomy as we can in the face of the continuing Disneyfication of the event; paradoxically, it is also what prompts control freaks and opportunists to come up with new and unwelcome rules for us to burn by. The heart of the paradox is that in order to keep Burning Man potentially fatal, we need to look after ourselves well enough that our deaths remain unusual or even rare occurrences. Failure means being swaddled in overprotective regulations that smother our culture.

The trick is to keep people who are likely to die away from the event. We don’t publish stories about how dangerous and uncomfortable Burning Man is because we hate Burning Man; on the contrary, we love the party and are committed to the culture, but we recognize that it’s not for everyone, and that encouraging just anyone to come is a Very Bad Idea. Radical inclusion shouldn’t ever be a matter of luring or dragging someone woefully unprepared into a howling wilderness where they will be unable to cope with the prevailing conditions.

Technically, you can be almost certain that you won’t die at Burning Man. . . because even if your heart stops or your head comes off or you otherwise cease to function metabolically at Burning Man, you probably won’t be declared dead until you get to Reno. The Org’s propaganda machine takes full advantage of this technicality, and conveniently does not include deaths declared off-playa in their tally of deaths at the event, no matter how or where the mayhem happened.

This is not meant – by a long shot – to be a complete list of the many, many deaths that have occurred in and around Burning Man. This is an overview, intended to give you an idea of what might be in store for the unwary, the feckless, and the star-crossed among us.

1. GETTING THERE/LEAVING

If ghosts really do haunt the places where they died, then the highway to and from the playa must be an ectoplasmic fiesta of epic proportions. Insane, horrible traffic accidents; battered, overturned, burnt vehicles; blood and body parts strewn across the asphalt.

The examples of typical, ordinary – but horrific – highway accidents are too numerous to pick a single example, but here’s an extraordinary one: Craig Nielson, a young man who joined DPW for his very first burn in 2001, never quite made it to Burning Man. Nielson died on the road, reportedly crushed in a vehicular accident that led to him bleeding to death on the way to do his very first load-out. Details are sketchy, but he may have been riding on top of an RV.

One of two Bonanzas wrecked at the '03 burn - Photo by Rigged

One of two Bonanzas wrecked at the ’03 burn – Photo by Rigged

Let’s not forget that Black Rock City has an airport, too, and that it handles something like a hundred takeoffs and landings a day during the event. In 2003 there were two incidents involving aircraft; in one, a Beechcraft BE-35 reportedly lost engine power on takeoff, severely injuring the four people onboard. One of the passengers had to undergo several surgeries to remove pieces of the plane’s control panel from his sinus cavity, and the pilot, Barry Jacobs, later died of his injuries.

Please drive (or fly your small plane) carefully, avoid engaging in highway hijinks no matter how boisterous your spirits get in anticipation of the burn, and keep emergency supplies – like water and a first-aid kit – in the vehicle. The road to the burn takes you into a remote area; if you have an accident there, help is liable to be quite far away. One of the reasons that Barry Jacobs died is that it took well over an hour for first responders to get to the plane and get him out of it.

2. ART CARNAGE

The ban on driving anything but art cars and the five-mile-per-hour speed limit are not preventative measures; they are direct products of vehicular manslaughter on and near the playa. As Danial Glass reported in the Boston Phoenix, the 1996 burn brought some serious change:

Michael Fury, a friend of Larry Harvey and a creative influence at Burning Man, was killed in a collision while riding his motorcycle at night, playing chicken with a blacked-out van. Others died near a rave camp when a truck ran over their tent while they were sleeping inside.

In 1997, driving was banned on the playa, and fire art was prohibited in areas where people were camped. The admission ticket, which used to admonish participants to “Please keep weapons unloaded in camp,” now warned that firearms were banned within its borders. The county imposed its own restrictions as well. As Burning Man staff toned down the potentially destructive elements of the event, the rough-edged freedom waned considerably.

Those weren’t art car deaths, but the backlash made it a lot less likely for anyone to be killed by any vehicle at Burning Man that isn’t an art car.

In 2003, a burner named Katherine Lampman jumped off a moving art car because she wanted to get a closer look at the Temple of Honor. Somehow, she lost her balance and fell backward after landing, which placed her directly in the path of the car’s wheels. “I will never forget the feeling that surged into my hands through the steering wheel,” remarked Randy Emata, who was driving the art car that ended Lampman’s life. “My worst fears were followed by a myriad of terrified voices, screaming for me to stop the car. I ran back and discovered that the trailer ran her over. Her life was slowly coming to an end as she breathed less and less. Revival was attempted, but failure was inevitable. Someone grabbed a spectator’s bicycle and sped off to a nearby Ranger. Soon after, the Sheriffs showed up with an ambulance, taking her to the medical center. A helicopter was on its way. As I was writing out my statement, a deputy told me that the helicopter left without her and that she didn’t make it.”

3. DIY

There have been a number of suicides at Burning Man over the years, most notably that of Jermaine “Jerm” Barley, who hung himself in a Moroccan-style tent full of gym equipment at Comfort & Joy camp. The suicide went undetected for some time; as witness Don Davis remarked, “It looked like someone was playing a joke with a dummy.”

Rumor has it that a number of people saw Barley’s corpse hanging on a rope, and thought it was art.

Barley wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last. . . and there are also post-burn suicides to tally up. Some people can’t handle the coming-down phase of Burning Man; they return to the world outside Black Rock and everything seems so muted and washed-out by comparison. It can be a real downer. . . and it can and has led to suicides. If you count that as “dying at Burning Man,” then post-burn suicide accounts for more deaths than any other cause on this list. In at least one case, the suicide came several years after the actual event, but was very clearly related. Rest in peace, Paul Addis.

4. MOLECULAR MISADVENTURE

Drugs are like guns, kids. They’re just tools, and the important thing isn’t so much what they do to you; it’s what you do with them that makes the entire difference between use and abuse. Responsible adults use drugs responsibly, or not at all. Sometimes using responsibly means refraining from mixing your pharmaceutical experience with an overly-perilous environment. You don’t want to be wandering around in the middle of the desert alone with your head full of a drug like ‘cup,’ with its well-known side effect of dehydrating and disorienting the user. Even the effects of a drug as ordinary and seemingly harmless as Tibetan poon oil can lead to a serious health crisis on the playa, with your body in a constant state of overstimulated exhaustion and your environment sucking the moisture out of you like you’re inside a giant dessicant sachet.

Do we even need to talk about garden-variety overdoses? Your body is going to be taxed quite a bit out there, and you need to be sensitive to that fact if you’re going to chemically alter yourself in any way that might present a risk.

On the sunny side (along with sunstroke) there’s something positive to mention: although there have been drug-related deaths at Burning Man, burners seem to be quite a bit more responsible about their recreational substances than the average festival-goer. The 2011 AfterBurn report’s Medical section includes this comment from the emergency medical personnel that attended: “The numbers for alcohol- and drug-related patients continue to be remarkably low for an event of this size.”

5. REDRUM

There are two words you don’t say around Org people, or around your supervisors if you’re DPW: one is ‘rape,’ and the other is ‘murder.’ The Org doesn’t like these things – or any of the things in this article, for that matter – bandied about too freely. They actively instruct workers, both paid and volunteer, to stay mum regarding anything that might make them or the event look bad.

Johnson arrived at the DPW ranch wounded... and talkative

Johnson arrived at the DPW ranch wounded… and talkative

Happily, we don’t get a lot of murders at Burning Man (rape is another matter; they are depressingly frequent out there). That doesn’t, however, mean that nobody gets murdered. In 2003, Christopher Scott Johnson (aka “One-Armed Bandit”) showed up at the DPW ranch looking for work. His erratic behavior and his bragging about having killed a man prompted Will Roger and Ranch manager Matthew ‘Metric’ Ebert to call the police, who discovered that Johnson had indeed stabbed a man to death in a van on the road to the playa.

6. AUTO-DA-FÉ

It hasn’t happened so far, but give it time; someone without a posse is going to crank up FREE BIRD at the perfect moment, and an angry mob of zealous whatever-worshippers – enraged at this insult to the highly-evolved and enlightened wisdom that allows them to live superior lives of peaceful Buddha-like tranquility – is going to nail the offender to a cross and toss it into the flames of the Temple. . . and then we’ll have two religions to contend with on the playa.

7. WHOOPSIE-DAISY

Plenty of garden-variety accidents happen every year at Burning Man; people climb things and fall off; people ingest spoiled consumables; people trip over tent stakes; people have bicycle mishaps. Once in a while, especially in a city of 60,000 souls, these things are bound to be fatal.

In 1999, Jim Keith fell from a stage at Burning Man and broke his knee. The week after the burn, he entered the Washoe Medical hospital for knee surgery and died in the Intensive Care Unit shortly after surgery was completed, when a blood clot released from his broken knee entered his lung. The coroner’s report listed cause of death as “blunt force trauma.”

The accidents can usually be avoided, if you’ll just keep your eyes open, keep your stress level manageable, and use common sense. You know how it works: one minute you’re stressing yourself out arguing with your campmates while building some large structure as the Sun beats down on you, and the next minute you’re taking it out on the work, pounding nails a little too hard, until you end up applying your claw hammer directly to your forehead on the bounce-back. Or maybe you’re just walking around, not paying much attention, when a truck full of ice swerves to avoid a pothole and tips over and falls on you. Maybe you’re tired and want to get home as soon as possible, so you stay at the wheel for Exodus and end up falling asleep on it.

Most fatal accidents happen in the home; most in the bathroom. Leave the bathroom at home and you’ll be safer. The dust is your friend.

Nobody knows for sure what killed 37-year-old Adam Goldstone. The East Village DJ hit his head on some rebar, suffering at least a mild concussion, and later slipped or fainted in the shower in his RV, injuring himself further and eventually dying. Emergency medical personnel were summoned, but were unable to save him. Goldstone’s father was of the opinion that his son may have been felled by a heart condition.

Even in the absence of an accident, you might just happen to be on the playa when your time comes. Sometimes there’s just no dodging that bullet with your name written on it.

Erika the Red died tragically young with no warning

Erika the Red died tragically young with no warning

Erika “the Red” Kupfersberger died of an aneurysm on the playa in 2011, for no particular reason that had anything to do with being at Burning Man. People have heart attacks and strokes at Burning Man, not infrequently, and not always because of any particular environmental factor.

8. IN THE SOUP

The hot springs in the vicinity of the playa can be really wonderful, but they’re also perilous as hell to the incautious. . . especially Double Hot, with its twin maw of boiling danger. In 1849, a traveler by the name of Bruff wrote this about Double Hot:

Sept.22. In the first part we reached a pretty clear sparkling rill, about six feet broad, and a few inches deep; when to my astonishment the mules halted short at the edge, and refused in spite of the whip and shouting, to put a foot in it! I guessed there might be a vapor from it, but on putting my hand in, found it quite hot – not sufficiently to scald, however. So we had much trouble here, pulling and urging the teams over; and when they did go, it was accomplished by each pair of mules, in succession leaping over like deer, and thus jerking the wagons after them.

Next, on left, observed a cluster of hot Spring mounds, with their circlets of marsh and tall green grass.- In one lay a dead ox, apparently fell there yesterday; one hind leg in the basin of hot water, which had so well cooked it, that nought but white bones and tendons were left, of that limb, as high as the water had influence.

Some 150 years later, a burner gave the following report to Erowid.org regarding the local springs:

Probably the most dangerous hot springs is Double Hot, which is north of Black Rock about 10 miles. Great camping spot and really nice tubs, even a real bathtub at one location. The *usable* tubs are a hundred feet or so away from where the hot water comes up out of the ground and begins flowing downhill in a boiling hot stream. The tubs are holes dug to the side of the stream, and water is redirected according to the users’ comfort requirements.

The place where the hot water comes out of the ground is called the maw. There are actually two of them and they are incredibly beautiful, deep blue water and you can see down into the sweltering bowels of the earth several fathoms. The water is about 200 degrees. IF YOU FALL INTO THE MAW YOU WILL DIE. In 1994 I witnessed a family from Reno out on a little tour fail to exercise care around the maw. Their beautiful golden retriever–the family dog obviously for many years–thought she would go for a swim. I became aware of the disaster when the screaming began. The whole family was crying horribly as the father stuck his hands in the boiling water to pull out their pet. The little boy and the little girl were absolutely devastated and that is where my friend Louis directed his marvelous efforts to calm them down by telling them distracting stories, away from the scene. I helped the father who was cursing himself and crying uncontrollably. The dog went almost immediately into shock, as her skin began to slough off in patches about as big as my hand. Eventually most of the fur was gone. The family bundled their pet into a blanket and slowly made their way back to Reno. I am sure the father had second and perhaps even third-degree burns on his arms.

Note that the maw is not marked or protected by any sort of barrier.

9. DEATH BY EXTREME OBVIOUSNESS

Being burned to death at Burning Man, really? Sadly, yes. According to the 2001 AfterBurn report, “a participant who chose to run into a fire” later died of his burns in a Reno hospital. The incident apparently took place the night of the burn, somewhere on the deep playa.

You’re never going to know just exactly how much mayhem and death takes place at Burning Man, because the Org actively discourages anyone from talking about it, and discounts deaths that happen on the highway to or from the playa, or in places like Reno hospitals as a result of injuries sustained on the playa. . . but the number is probably much higher than you think it is. Please, don’t make a secret statistic of yourself. It’s your job to keep yourself safe and healthy out there, and the fewer who succeed at that, the harder it will become to keep Burning Man potentially fatal. Do a good job!

37 comments on “9 Ways to Die at Burning Man

  1. Pingback: Woman Killed By Art Car at Burning Man – Mashable | Best Furniture Mart

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  3. A few rules for partying that everyone should always keep in mind:

    1. You can’t fly
    2. Cars hurt
    3. Always wear shoes

    And, while at Burning Man,

    4. Carry lots of water

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    • Yes, everyone who enjoys things that are different than what you enjoy should die so the world will be a better place. Presumably just for you I’m guessing? We definitely need more closed minded douchebags like you in the world.

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  10. Good article but a few minor fact checks. Craig Nielson died during load in not load out riding late night from the Work Ranch to the festival site on a flatbed trailer being towed by a ranch truck that jack knifed. he was thrown off and crushed under the trailer. I was on the scene about a half hour later and saw the body. It was all internal bleeding no discernable blood spill but tragic none the less. The guy who jumped into the fire in 2001 was at a theme camp bar that was inside the perimeter not in “the deep playa” He was on psych meds and had neglected to take them among other things. I did not know him but saw it happen and he had his head in my lap before the ambulance got there. Paul Addis commited suicide years after his attempt to pre burn the man and subsequent overkill prosecution by the BMORG and resulting incarceration though to be fair intentional arson is a huge thing in what is usually more or less ranch country often with extreme fire conditions, but I don’t think his death could be atribuited to BM, he had um…idiosyncratic brain chemistry. He was a friend of mine once. Very sad. Some other details were a bit off butthen that may be on purpose too butthe gist is accurate especially with the whole BM PR spin machine which borders on mendacity at times around certain issues IMHO after working the event for 9 years. Oh and while Michal Fury’s death 1996 was accuratly related the two kids in the tent that got run over that year did not die though I believe one of them did sustain permenmant brain injury. The one armed guy was real I was there when that picture was taken but really that was totally unrelated to the event. Trying to find actual figures which one would think would be a matter of public record concerning deaths happening in or around are not at all easy to come by. Nonetheless for its size there are fewer deaths or near fatal inncidents than most any non religious gathering of similure size. The hardest thing is witnessing one or two in a year and dealing with all the feel good deny anything negative masses afterwards.Denial is most certainly not just a river in Africa with many self identified “burners”.

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  13. My daughter, Erika “the Red” Kupfersberger, pictured above in this piece, died Labor Day weekend 2011, in the helicopter taking her to Reno about the time the man burned on Saturday night. Originally we were told she died of an aneurysm, but after life support was removed and her organs transplanted, the autopsy revealed that she actually died of cerebral edema. What had shown up as dark fluid on the films and was assumed to be blood, turned out to too much water and not enough salt, so that her system became unbalanced. This condition is rare but is becoming more common as people are urged to drink plenty of water, as Erika did, but are not told that important electrolytes that keep membranes intact and therefore keep fluids from penetrating and smothering brain tissue, must also be maintained, I’m writing this not-quite-two years after her death at 33, in hopes that others will get the message that it is important to hydrate, but that salt intake is also vital, particularly if you are very thin, as Erika was, and very active as she also was, riding her bike all over the Playa, loving every minute she spent at BM. She died the year that the theme was Transition, and if she chose that time to leave this world, as perhaps she did before hitting the planet, I still want to let burners know that salt tablets or increased salt intake, should be part of your diet. Attending her first BM changed E’s life, opening up a whole new world, a world she’d been looking for all her life. Her second Burn was her last, but we are forever grateful for the joy and pure experience she soaked up there before leaving us.

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  15. Ummmmm… yea. All that. Sure. But this:
    “the warning on the back of each and every ticket: YOU MIGHT DIE, and that’s your responsibility.”

    Not so much. Just because someone writes something on a ticket doesn’t mean it’s it’s legally binding. If I sold you a ticket to Camp Tipsy and it said that by purchasing this ticket I consent to have my child sold into slavery… well, just because you buy the ticket doesn’t make slavery legal. This is legal bullying, or ‘sabre rattling’. This is just trying to get stupid people to not bother suing.

    Oh, and that whole “BM owns your photos thing”? Never been tested in a court of law. They say it, sure. You read it. But if you wanna make a Girls Gone Wild video at BM, there ain’t shit anyone can do about it. They will SAY they have legal means, and they certainly have plenty of money to pursue… but it’s never been tested. Just empty threats.

    BM is great at empty threats. I’ll bet 25% of everything they say to us or one another is an empty threat.

    Your wrong about Paul Addis, though. BM didn’t cause him to commit suicide. As far as I and many other people see it Marion adn Larry killed him straight up. And for this they will never be forgiven. And we will never forget. And there will be a time when they are weak. And we will crush them like bugs.

    Because they are bugs. Pests. Thieves. Liars. Kidnappers holding our event hostage forever trying to figure out how to make it about them. They are the Amanda Palmers of events, but they are not smart enough to figure out how to accomplish the feat of making themselves interesting. Because not even I could do that. Insipid, boring, trite, petty social climbing twits led by Chauncey Gardner.

    It’s actually pretty funny when you think about it. What’s gonna be really funny is when everyone turns on them. When they realize that they have no friends, that people are only close to them because they have power.

    The closest thing I have ever seen to the inner working of BM is Game of Thrones. You think you hate the LLC? Well, they hate each other more. It’s kinda a sweet revenge, they have to endure each other. And I can just stroll in here and say a bunch of mean true things and stroll out. And they have smile and eat more shit.

    Keep smiling guys! It’s gonna be a great year! Yea! Whooo!!!! Some really great art this year, we’re really getting it togheter… spilling onto a world stage… spreading that Burning Man feeling!!!! The LLC is so excited to do another year of Burning Man!!!!! Can you feel it? It’s all so exciting!!!!! Can’t wait to meet all those voulenteers!!!!!! Those young fresh faces!!!!!!!!

    (spoken under breath through clenched teeth while smiling for the camersa): “Larry, when do we get the million dollars you promised us if we just hung on for one more year? That was 3 years ago! I can’t stand this bullshit another second!”

    You guys are doing a great job! Good job guys! Thumbs up!!!

    your adoring fan, chicken john

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  16. I can’t remember the year, but perhaps 2001? A young man jumped naked into the fire either after the man fell, or at the temple burn. He was taken to Reno where he languished while a search went on for who he perhaps was or if anyone was missing him. After about a month a woman went on eplaya asking if anyone knew the whereabouts of her brother, last seen heading to Burning Man a month ago. We directed her to check out the Reno hospital and sure enough the burn victim was her brother. She was able to visit him just before he died. Sh wrote again on eplaya thanking people there for their help, and telling us her brother had a history of mental issues. It was tragic and sad all the way around.

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  17. I’m a faithful burner, father to two large theme camps. In 2001 my older brother died in a fiery car/RV accident just hours before the temple of tears burned that year. The moon was full, and so was my heart. Full of grief, disbelief, and acceptance that perhaps there was no better way to die . . . in a place where the line between the real, the imagined, and death, are not all that clear. To die in a home of joy and beauty, and at a time where thousands of mourners consciously celebrate such passing . . . well . . . can anyone imagine a more untroubled and grand death? The thing I want to tell you is this: Rest well before exodus, no matter how tired, stay another day, even if it’s hard, and most of all, drive very, very carefully. I miss my brother.

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  18. Great story . Last year , we had 2 idiots who thought it would be a good idea to jump off our (stationary) art car. One injured his ankle and had to be taken away by the medical team. Don’t jump off art cars, people. I’ve heard stories of other people in tents being run over by vehicles (luckily they survived).
    One of the greatest dangers I think is dehydration . People fucked up on hallucinogens can forget to drink- even at night, you’re dancing in a dry environment , and unless you bring a lot of water with you, you’re gonna run out quick. Alcohol and drugs can seriously dehydrate you, more so out there than at your average warehouse rave in the city. And you might not be “compos mentis” enough to be able to source some more from your neighbors.

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  19. Pingback: HOWTO die at Burning Man - Heavenarticles

  20. So many of the rules are there and exist because they are written in blood. For those of us who have been lost, I raise my whiskey and pour out the bottle for their thirsty souls. Safety third was kinda funny…. about a decade ago.

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