A 41-year-old man who died after rushing into a Burning Man blaze Saturday night was on his first trip to the festival, according to his parents.
Aaron Joel Mitchell died early Sunday at the UC Davis Firefighters Burn Institute in Sacramento after being airlifted from Nevada. He had broken through two rings of security Saturday night and dashed into the festival’s blazing namesake effigy, dubbed the “Man,” before event firefighters pulled him to safety.
Johnnye Mitchell told the Reno Gazette-Journal that her son grew up in Oklahoma but had most recently been living in Switzerland with his wife. He worked in construction.
“He was loving and a nice person,” Johnnye Mitchell said. “Joel liked hiking and outdoors, running.”
She and his father, Donald Mitchell, told the paper they had last seen their son Aug. 1 before he headed to a solar eclipse music festival in Oregon as a precursor to his first Burning Man.
Nevada’s Pershing County Sheriff Jerry Allen said doctors confirmed Mitchell wasn’t under the influence of alcohol, but a toxicology report is pending.
“We don’t know if it was intentional on his part or if it was just kind of induced by drugs. We’re not sure of that yet,” Allen said.
More than 70,000 people attended the nine-day Burning Man art and music celebration in the Black Rock Desert, about 100 miles north of Reno.
The festival culminates with the burning of a towering 40-foot effigy made of wood, a symbol of rebirth, which usually happens the Saturday before the Labor Day holiday. It’s followed by the burning of a temple on Sunday before the festivities wrap up Monday.
Festival organizers suspended further fire-related events Sunday, but the burning of the temple proceeded as scheduled Sunday with ramped-up security.
Following Mitchell’s death, organizers offered emotional support counseling on site, saying in a statement: “Now is a time for closeness, contact and community. Trauma needs processing. Promote calls, hugs, self-care, check-ins, and sleep.”
Attempts to rescue Mitchell were hampered because part of the structure was falling while they were trying to get Mitchell out of it, 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,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement.
Attendees have tried before to run into the flames while the man is burning and there have been reported injuries from people trying to get a piece of the spectacle as a token and going through the hot coals. Allen said it’s a problem that the organizers have tried to contain by having their own rangers stage a human-chain to prevent people from getting to the fire. Allen said that this is the first time someone has gotten through like this and the only fatality that he’s aware of in his 15 years with the county.
“People try to run into the fire as part of their spiritual portion of Burning Man,” Allen said. “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 tenets of radical self-expression.”
Known for eclectic artwork, offbeat theme camps, concerts and other entertainment, Burning Man began in San Francisco before moving to Nevada in 1990. Over the years as the event grew in popularity, deaths and crime have been reported, ranging from car crashes to drug use.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.