A man who ran straight into the towering flames of the Burning Man festival’s signature ceremony over the weekend has died from his injuries hours after being airlifted to a California burn center.
The man was identified as 41-year-old Aaron Joel Mitchell. He reportedly rushed past firefighters and broke through a two-layer security perimeter during the “Man Burn” event where a giant wooden sculpture of a humanoid figure is set on fire, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Authorities are still investigating the man’s death. Pershing County Sheriff Jerry Allen (in Nevada) estimated 50,000 people were present at the event when the festival’s crew of firefighters managed to pull Mitchell from the massive blaze.
Rescue attempts for Mitchell were blocked because parts of the 40-feet wood structure were falling while rescuers were trying to get him out. The effigy was apparently a symbol of rebirth.
“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.
Mitchell was airlifted to the UC David Burn Center in California where he died from his burns on Sunday morning. The sheriff said doctors found that Mitchell was not drunk—but a toxicology report is in progress to determine if drugs were involved.
“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.
A tweet from Burning Man organizers said that the community “is grieving after an incident during last night’s Burn.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, Mitchell was a U.S citizen who was living in Switzerland with his wife and had a home in Oklahoma as well.
Mitchell’s mother, Johnnye Mitchell told Reno Gazette Journal that her son grew up in McAlester, Okla.
“He was in great spirits when we saw him,” Johnnye said, she saw her son last month. “He’s 41, but they are always your baby.”
“He was loving and a nice person,” his mother told Gazette Journal. Mitchell’s parents said they saw their son on Aug. 1 before he went to Oregon to attend a solar eclipse festival and then to Burning Man.
Burning Man organizers offered emotional support counseling on-site during the nine-day festival in the Black Rock Desert, about 100 miles north of Reno.
“Now is a time for closeness, contact, and community. Trauma needs processing. Promote calls, hugs, self-care, check-ins, and sleep” organizers said in a statement.
Allen said that this was not the first time an attendee tried to run into the flames, but that it was the only death he knew of in his 15 years with the county.
The festival first began in San Francisco before moving to Nevada in 1990. As the event grew over the years, death and crime have grown with it according to reports, including car crashes and drug use.