The Burning Man Festival, an annual gathering for over 70,000 people who want to practice “self-expression” in the most vulgar ways possible, has now taken on its name literally, as Saturday night a man evaded security officers and rushed into a massive fire at the festival's signature ceremony, suffering burns that left him dead just hours later.
Aaron Joel Mitchell, 41, (pictured above) penetrated a two-layer security perimeter during the Man Burn event in which a 40-foot tall wooden effigy is on fire, according to the Los Angeles Times. The festival's crew of firefighters retrieved Mitchell, who was airlifted to the UC Davis Burn Center in California; he died Sunday morning.
Nevada's Pershing County Sheriff Jerry Allen reported doctors said Mitchell was not drunk but they have not released a toxicology report yet. Allen added, “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’s office said firefighters had difficulty reaching Mitchell because part of the structure was falling; the office added, “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.”
Mitchell, a U.S. citizen, owned a home in Oklahoma but reportedly had moved to Switzerland with his wife. His mother Johnnye, who saw him in August, and called him Joel, said, "He was in great spirits when we saw him. He's 41, but they are always your baby. He was loving and a nice person. Joel liked hiking and outdoors, running."
According to the Reno Gazette-Journal, “It remains unclear whether Mitchell was trying to run into the fire or tripped and fell into it while trying to avoid security staff."
The Times noted: “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.”
Allen said the festival creates a human chain that has prevented people from entering the fire in the past; this was the first time someone broke through. He said, "People try to run into the fire as part of their spiritual portion of Burning Man. 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 tenants of radical self-expression."
The Burning Man Journal, the official voice of the Burning Man organization, managed by Burning Man's Communications Team, wrote:
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.”