Salon has done an excellent piece on the epidemic of suicides amongst Burning Man workers.
There is a great deal of concern about the high frequency of depression and suicide among Black Rock City LLC (BRC) workers. While several factors contribute to depression and suicide, and correlation is not causation, the fact remains that 3 suicides (in a year) is an astonishingly high rate for virtually any population so small, and more so because, while these deaths are mourned, they are not entirely unexpected.
To put this in perspective, the US Army in 2011 reported a peak of 22.9 suicides per 100,000 soldiers, which was the highest rate seen in a decade. Per 100,000 appears to be a standard metric for this sort of thing. Assuming the combined numbers of Gate, DPW and Rangers to be approximately 1,000 strong, that would mean a suicide rate of 300 per 100,000. Statistically speaking, Black Rock City’s staff are 13 times more likely to kill themselves in the off-season than veterans returning from active combat duty. Even in a “slow year”, where only one BRC worker commits suicide, that is still 4 times the Army’s highest recorded suicide rate.
The seven suicides in seven years were just for DPW workers. There have also been Burners who committed suicide at the event, or after the event, workers who died on the job, and tragic fatal accidents.
Burning Man’s official history traces its origins to a secret society known as The Suicide Club. Coincidence? Or dark irony?
Before this year, there were at least six deaths in Black Rock City. An additional number of Burners passed away after being evacuated.
The known deaths, reported by the Black Rock Beacon and other media or the Burning Man organization:
2011 – Erika Kupfersberger, cerebral hemorrhage.
2007 – Jermaine “Jerm” Barley, suicide by hanging.
2006 – Adam Goldstone, a DJ with a known heart condition, died in RV after fainting.
2005 – Sam Rich, a member of the fire-dancing group Controlled Burn, heart attack. Rich had sustained a head injury for which he was given stitches on Wednesday, the day before he died.
2003 – Katherine Lampman, run over by art car she was exiting.
2001 – A participant chose to run into a fire, according to the Afterburn probably the burning of Amazing Larry’s Lucky Seven Ages, the casino built into two large dice in the Deep Playa.
Among other event-related fatalities, an unidentified 52-year-old female Burner died in a Reno hospital after being transported from the Playa in 2010 because of an “unknown” medical condition, according to the Afterburn.
In 2005, a second Burner suffered cardiac arrest on the Playa and died that October after slipping into a coma in the hospital.
One fatality occurred from one of the two aircraft crashes in 2003. Barry Jacobs, the pilot of one of the planes, died after being hospitalized.
Two additional deaths in 2001 associated with the event included a Department of Public Works volunteer who died in a motor vehicle accident on the highway before the event and a second traffic fatality on Highway 447 during Exodus.
Michael Furey died in a motorcycle accident as the event was being set up in 1996.
More than 600 volunteers and staff ringed the perimeter of the Temple, backed up by a hastily installed metal security fence. The fence and additional security were new conditions sought by the federal land manager, said Burning Man co-founder Crimson Rose.
…Rose said federal Bureau of Land Management officials wanted Burning Man to call off the Temple burn, the ceremonial finish to the weeklong festival of 70,000 people in the Nevada desert. She said the government wanted 350 extra security guards. Burning Man found nearly double that number.
“We are showing the government we can step forward,” Rose said as she joined with other perimeter guards. “It is a testament to our spirit. We have a ritual to complete”
Saturday of Burning Man, everyone in our group was pretty fed up with the desert and ready to be home with our families and pets. Then we went to the burn. We spun conclave in the middle of the great circle, looking out at the sea of people and art cars with their neon lights and bumping music. It was a rush unlike any other. Afterward we settled in to watch The Man go up in flames. We cheered as the biggest effigy to date produced an impressive fire works show and serious explosions. Laughing and joking, all of us talked about how we had earlier been ready to leave but after performing and watching The Man burn, maybe we ought to discuss coming next year after all. Then suddenly people were yelling. A man was barreling through the crowd right toward our fire group. Nick was on his feet and running after the guy, the perimeter people called at him to sit down so he pulled a baseball slide and tried to trip the runner, barely missing. The guy darted at the perimeter, a relatively tall man looking very in shape, he dodged the sandmen rushing him with incredible speed and agility. He was determined and bigger and faster than anyone chasing him. As he bolted to the fire, I kept thinking he wasn’t really going to make it. No way. But then he was running into the fire, the sandmen couldn’t follow him any more. The fire was hot as hell from where we were sitting so I can’t imagine being that close to it. He ran back out of the fire, circled back a bit and ran right into the middle and laid down (or tripped backward maybe). None of the firemen could go after him until a piece of the effigy fell, then they rushed into the fire and pulled him out and loaded him into an ambulance. I can’t even describe the emotions. I was crying, gasping for breath, saying “Oh my god, please no” over and over again, feeling a panic attack clenching my throat in a steel grip. We didn’t want to look but we couldn’t stop watching. I saw my friends crying as well, shoulders shaking, hands covering their faces, partners trying to comfort their loved ones while barely keep it together themselves. I couldn’t take it anymore. We asked the perimeter guards if we could leave and they graciously let us stand up and rush away. Nobody got to run around the fire that night. Instead we muscled our way through the crowd, sometimes hearing people ask if someone had run through the fire as we rushed out sobbing. Most people were too far back to know what happened and were partying and having the time of their lives. It was so disturbing to have just witnessed someone lay down in a massive fire then leave to see that the world went on like nothing had happened. Once back at camp, we had lengthy discussions about the happening. We wondered what the guy had taken, he was obviously neck deep in some sort of intense psychedelic experience. We wondered if he was already suicidal and chose that moment to end his human contract or if he was just so fucked up that he actually thought he could do it and live, driven by feelings of godliness. There was a lot of anger. If the man was suicidal, why did he have to do that to us? Was it necessary to imprint that horrifying scene into our minds for our entire lives? We expressed how lucky we were to have our tribe, to be confident that if one of us ever reached that point we would for sure wrestle the person to the cops or a med station even if it meant clubbing then upside the head and tying them up. Because really, who the fuck are this guy’s friends? Then there is the perimeter itself. It’s weak. The sandmen are spaced too far apart and aren’t big enough and strong enough to take on all types of potential runners. I know burners are about handling business themselves but damn, hire a trained security team of big beef cake meatheads in top notch health. It has happened before, multiple people run every year, some have even made it. And what about telling the crowd not to help? I get it to some extent, but several people in our group could have tackled that guy and restrained him until help arrived momentarily. Or at least slowed him enough for the sandmen to get into position to catch him. Maybe we are somewhat in the wrong for not trying anyway. A man’s life was on the line and everyone followed orders instead of doing the right thing. Why were the sandmen chasing him in circles instead of blocking the fire and creating a barrier? By doing that, they left the fire wide open for him to run into. This man tried THREE times to break perimeter. Three. Why aren’t people who do that escorted to safety and monitored and maybe even banned from burns in general? Now I am not blaming any one person directly. Someone that sets that sort of intention and makes such a decision is clearly at fault for the consequences of their actions. However, could the safety precautions being modified and strengthened? Ab-so-fucking-lutely. And they should be. Not only for the mentally unstable runners, but for the sake of the thousands of witnesses who are traumatized by such an event. Nobody go burnier than thou on me and defend Burning Man, especially if you didn’t see what we were forced to see. These sorts of events bring an already misunderstood event like Burning Man under the microscope scrutiny of police and government organizations who already disagree with people who live as freely as burners do together. What could possibly be more important than protecting the sacred oasis that is Burning Man and regionals, the only places that so many of us feel safe being who we truly are? I’m trying to sort through this. I don’t want to be dwelling on this and circling around it, talking about it, reading articles and looking at pictures of the guy of Aaron Mitchell and wondering what he was like and what made him snap but I am and it just won’t stop. I saw some of the most amazing art in the world, danced at incredible sound stages with fire sculptures breathing flames and towering speaker stacks throwing bass across the the playa. I got to see what can happen when creative people want to build something amazing to uplift those in their burn community, when people just want to make others happy and taken care of while encouraging them to become more self reliant. The Ten Principles really are the guidelines for building a truly free and sustainable community, I really believe that. I am in awe always over the potential and motivation of true burners. But…just to the forefront of all that wonder and magic is Aaron Mitchell, laying down in unfathomably hot blaze, the man who probably just took too strong of drugs and thought he could survive fire, the stranger who died and left a scar on our hearts forever. Honestly, that is burn life. It won’t always be fun, sometimes it’s incredibly hard and you’re forced to evaluate parts of the human experience that aren’t comfortable and it happens in between the moments of love and elation and connection that we all crave. I’m learning from this, I’m growing as a person and am reminded of how incredibly lucky I am to be alive and deeply loved. Thanks for reading. Hug your loved ones. If you need help, don’t be afraid to seek it out. If you think someone needs help, reach out and offer them some. I will abuse the cliche again and say that we truly have to be the change we wish to see in the world.
There’s video. WARNING. This is intense. The Man had burned but the Temple of The Man was still standing.
[Update 9/12/17 11:26am PST]
A lot of censorship is being generated around this post. Thomson-Reuters gave me a takedown request for the photos, which we complied with, but that wasn’t good enough. They also objected to the screenshot of the Drudge Report headlines which incorporated one of their images. How far does this go: embedding a YouTube video, which may contain some of their photos? Linking to a Facebook discussion where somebody else posted the photos? At what point does non-profit, educational Fair Use become a consideration to MainStream Media #fakenews conglomerates? Remember, these are the people who brought us the 9/11 conspiracy and WMDs in Iraq, while profiting enormously. One wonders why free blog sites about Burning Man are so important to them.
We have shown already some of the Org’s attempts to shut down any discussion of this incident on social media, which has been backed by what appears to be co-ordinated troll attacks. Looks like there is an effort to take down all the related videos too. It would be nice to think they were doing this to prevent copycats and further sacrifices, but I suspect there are other motivations at work.
About 10:30 p.m. Saturday, the man broke through safety perimeters at the Northern Nevada festival and ran straight into a fire, Burning Man officials said in a statement. Black Rock City firefighters entered the flames to rescue the festival-goer.
The man was treated on the scene before being transported to an on-site medical facility, officials said. He was later airlifted to a burn treatment center…
The man’s condition as of Sunday morning was unknown.
At approximately 10:30 p.m. Saturday evening, a male participant at the annual Burning Man event in Northern Nevada broke through a safety perimeter and ran into a fire. Black Rock City fire personnel rescued him from the fire.
The individual was treated on scene, transported to the on-site medical facility and airlifted to a burn treatment center.
We will share more information as it becomes available.
One of the Honorarium art installations this year was “The Pyramid of the Dead” dedicated to celebrating death: “Death is a part of life as much as life is a part of Death, and we invite you to celebrate this relationship with us”
A couple of days ago RT ran a story “Beware of Fire: Deaths at Burning Man”. There seem to be far more deaths at this event than any other festival, including much larger ones. Of course, it’s just a coincidence that it’s an occult ritual burning a wooden effigy inside a pentagram celebrating death and rebirth, surrounded by Pyramids and Temples for the Dead, lit from a fire kept burning in a magic soul-cooking cauldron called El Diabla. There are many other large scale public occult rituals that go on without such deaths…oh wait. Sorry, my mistake. There are no other such rituals.
[Images from YourEDM removed at the request of Thomson Reuters]
[Update 3/9/17 5:44pm PST]
Some links to counseling information from BMorg. Many Burners are seriously traumatized about witnessing such an horrific event during the peak moment of the party:
Emotional support teams have been made available to participants and staff. For people on playa, the Zendo Project is providing peer counseling at their space at 5:15 & A. Support staff from our Emergency Services Department’s Crisis Intervention Team are stationed at 3:00 & C, 9:00 & C, and 5:30 & Esplanade. Please seek them out.
If you are not on playa and are feeling the need to talk to someone, don’t wait. You can reach 24/7 crisis and suicide hotlines at 1-800-273-8255 or 775-784-8090. You can also text LISTEN to 839863.
Now is a time for closeness, contact and community. Trauma needs processing. Promote calls, hugs, self-care, check-ins, and sleep. We have found this article helpful for understanding how trauma affects us: “A New Normal: Ten Things I’ve Learned About Trauma”.
Update 4:45 p.m. Sunday: The mother of Aaron Joel Mitchell confirmed that her son was the man who died after running into flames at Burning Man on Saturday night…
Joel grew up in McAlester, Oklahoma but was living in Switzerland.
“He’s 41, but they are always your baby,” said Johnnye Mitchell. “He was loving and a nice person…Joel liked hiking and outdoors, running.”
Mitchell said she saw her son on Aug. 1 before he headed to Oregon to go to an Eclipse festival. She knew he was planning to go to Burning Man with friends and it was his first time to the annual festival.
She said he is married but does not have any children. His wife is from Switzerland. He was working in construction.
“He was in great spirits when we saw him…We are just in shock, total shock,” she said. “We can’t believe this happened.”
…The Burning Man organization canceled scheduled burns through noon Sunday but will proceed with the scheduled Temple burn at 8 p.m.
There is an investigation into his death. So far it is not known where he was camping.
[Update 9/3/17 7:44pm PST]
The RGJ has some further details from the Sheriff:
The Pershing County Sheriff said Sunday night that the initial rescue efforts were hampered due to a portion of “the Man” falling at the time rescuers were attempting to retrieve Mitchell from the debris.
“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,”…
It remains unclear whether Mitchell was trying to run into the fire or tripped and fell into it while trying to avoid security staff…
One safety ranger who witnessed the incident teared up as she told her campmates early Sunday morning how she tried but failed to stop the man.
Rangers who work the event are told in advance to look out for three kinds of people likely to rush toward the fire: people trying to get attention, people who are on drugs or intoxicated and don’t understand the danger, and the suicidal.
Chris Wallace was the man who died on the fire at Utah’s Element11 regional burn on Saturday. His family have started an online campaign to help pay for the funeral and end of life costs. They have asked that rather than sending flowers or condolences, the best thing the Burner community could do would be to help out with a donation of $35 (or whatever you can afford to give).
Burners in Utah can also go to a public fundraiser on Friday the 18th, a Gallery Show from 6-8pm at Mod-A-Go-Go, 242 E South Temple Salt Lake City. This is being put on by Chris’ wife’s sister.
John Christopher Wallace passed on Saturday July 12th unexpectedly. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation to help his wife pay for a funeral & end of life costs.
Chris was a great person with wide impact. On Saturday July 12th, Chris passed from this world at the “Burning Man” Element 11 event in Utah. His wife and family are still dealing with the shock and sadness of this news.
Chris did not have life insurance, and any funds you may be able to contribute toward his funeral, and end-of-life costs is a great blessing…The financial situation of his widow is VERY uncertain—no one plans for these type of tragedies, and she shouldn’t have to compare funeral plans at such a traumatic time in her life.
This link will take anyone who is interested to a page where they can donate to Chris’s funeral, memorial, and end-of-life costs.
I’m sending this…with the hope that you can somehow give this information to the burner community, while pleading that anyone who responds to the knowledge of this link is respectful, non-speculative, and understanding that Chris’s loved ones may always be searching for closure relating to this unfortunate event.
[Chris’ wife] is going to be destitute—health issues prevent her from being able to work full time & Chris was the bread winner.
Please be respectful to the family’s wishes. If you really feel the need to radically express yourself with nasty comments or personal opinions about this tragedy, you can add them to the discussion at the original story here. I will be deleting them from this page, as Chris’s family are in more than enough pain already, and still trying to process the terrible events of the weekend.
Nothing can bring Chris back, but maybe the Burner community can help out a little, and show the family that there is more to us than snark and armchair speculation. I have checked it out, believe it to be legitimate, and have donated.