by Whatsblem the Pro
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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” 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!