A man rushed past layers of security officers into a massive fire at the Burning Man festival’s signature ceremony, suffering burns that left him dead just hours later.
Authorities are investigating the death of Aaron Joel Mitchell, 41, who broke through a two-layer security perimeter during the Man Burn event in which a giant, wooden effigy is set ablaze.
Nevada’s Pershing County Sheriff Jerry Allen estimated there was a crowd of about 50,000 people present when the festival’s crew of firefighters pulled Mr Mitchell out of the blaze.
He was airlifted to the UC Davis hospital burn centre in California, where he died on Sunday morning. The sheriff said doctors confirmed Mr Mitchell was not 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,” Mr Allen said.
Burning Man said they had cancelled some burns on Sunday but would go ahead with the 8pm local time temple burn, another signature event that signals the end of the nine-day festival. More than 70,000 people are attending the art and music celebration in the Black Rock Desert, about 100 miles from Reno.
Organisers are also offering emotional support counselling on site, saying: “Now is a time for closeness, contact and community. Trauma needs processing. Promote calls, hugs, self-care, check-ins, and sleep.”
The festival includes the burning of a towering 40-foot effigy made of wood, a symbol of rebirth, which usually happens on the Saturday before the Labour Day holiday. It is followed by the burning of a temple on Sunday before the festivities wrap up on Monday.
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.
Mr Allen said it is a problem that the organisers have tried to contain by having their own rangers stage a human-chain to prevent people from getting to the fire. He said this is the first time someone has got through like this and the only fatality that he is 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,” he 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.
In 2014, a man in Utah died by jumping into a huge ceremonial bonfire in an event that was similar to Burning Man. It was investigated as a suicide.