Aaron Joel Mitchell, 41, has died from injuries after barging through several waves of security officers and passing through a massive blaze that was ignited during the Burning Man festival’s iconic ceremony. The Man Burn event involves the lighting of a massive wooden effigy of a human being.
Jerry Allen, Sheriff of Pershing County, estimates that roughly 50,000 attendees were present when firefighters hired for the festival extricated Mitchell from the effigy. Mitchell was then airlifted to California’s UC Davis Burn Center and while doctors were able to confirm the absence of alcohol in his system, a toxicology report has not been officially given. Allen was unsure if Mitchell’s actions were intentional or the result of drug use. Although Mitchell was a U.S. Citizen with a home in Oklahoma, he had previously been living with his wife in Switzerland.
Burning Man issued a statement that they would cease burns through noon Sunday but that the signature temple burn, used to conclude the nine-day attraction, would remain on schedule. Over 70,000 people attend the massive celebration of creativity held within Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Organizers have offered counseling services for festival-goers that need to process the incendiary death. Burning Man gets its name from the ignition of a 40-foot-tall wooden effigy as a symbolic act of rebirth and renewal that start the Saturday prior to Labor Day. This ceremony is followed by the ignition of a temple the following day.
The sheriff’s office commented Mitchell’s rescue was difficult due to debris falling from the burning effigy. Firefighters had to fall back so that the structure could fall apart to a point that the flames could be controlled. The investigation of Mitchell’s death is also running into problems as some festival-goers had left the site to head homeward.
Other attendees have tried to run through the flames of the burning effigy and there previous reports of injuries incurred by attendees seeking to grab a piece of the effigy as a souvenir. Organizers have looked to fix this problem by having rangers establish a human chain around the effigy. Sheriff Allen remarked that Mitchell’s attempt is the first instance where someone was able to break through the human chain and the sole fatality he has witnessed in his 15 years serving Pershing County.
Burning Man is a desert festival of creativity, quirkiness and kitsch that claimed Nevada as its second home in 1990.