The parents of the man who willfully ran into the flames of the towering effigy at Burning Man Saturday night say they are in shock and can not understand why he would have done something so crazy unless, that is, he was "slipped something" that night at the festival.
41-year-old Aaron Joel Mitchell was from Oklahoma, and had been living most recently with a wife in Switzerland, where he worked in construction. It sounds as though he was back in the US on an extended vacation, and had last seen his parents on August 1 before making his way to Oregon for an eclipse-watching festival, as the Reno Gazette-Journal reports. This was his first time ever attending Burning Man. (On Reddit, this photo appeared claiming to be of Mitchell just a week before Burning Man, in Oregon.)
Mitchell's father, Don Mitchell, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, "We really don’t know what happened. His friends aren’t talking. The coroner asked us if he was depressed and we said no. He was really a happy guy. Maybe he was slipped something." The senior Michell added, "He was always very cautious about what he ate."
"He's 41, but they are always your baby,” says mother Johnnye Mitchell to the Reno Gazette-Journal. "He was loving and a nice person. Joel liked hiking and outdoors, running. We are just in shock, total shock."
A toxicology report is still pending on Mitchell, who was pronounced dead at 6:28 a.m. Sunday, about eight hours after he reportedly ran headlong through a ring of security personnel into the flames of the burning Man, just as the inferno was dying down. As rescuers told the Reno Gazette-Journal, the rescue effort was momentarily hampered when part of the structure appeared about to fall. The paper reported that 600 volunteers were helping to secure the perimeter around the Burn on Saturday, nearly double the number that the Bureau of Land Management had asked be present. A hastily constructed fence was also ringing the fire as well.
According to the RGJ:
Rangers who worked the event are told in advance to look out for three kinds of people likely to rush toward the fire: people trying to get attention, like streakers, people who are on drugs or intoxicated and don't understand the danger, and the suicidal.
On Reddit, people who claim to have known Joel, and one who says his campmate was sitting next to him before he took off running into the flames, have put forward their theories.
"Most of the members of our camp watched it happen," writes Redditor Lateraltech. "We all went back to camp and just cried and told our stories. Our sweetest campmate was sitting right next to him before he ran. He said he knew something was wrong as he kept saying he had to get to the fire and was sitting in a posture ready to jump and run. I have never seen someone cry the way he did that night."
Writes another, username wood_stones, "Joel [was] the sweetest person I have ever met. He was literally a clown... He wasn't overtly troubled maybe a little [quiet] when he wasn't clownin around at a music festival. I hadn't had any 1 on 1 time with in a couple of years but he was a little lost on what to do on this earth work wise. My gut tells me he was more depressed than he let on / and was on acid or equivalent, and thought that he needed to run into the fire."
Another person on Reddit, claiming to be a "friend of a friend," reported that Mitchell "had a history jumping out of his hotel window on psychedelics and self harming. He knew not to take them and knew how he reacted to them and had walked the straight and narrow for many years now." SFist can not independently confirm that any of these "friends" accounts are accurate, but the death has sparked a great deal of discussion among people who attended Burning Man and/or witnessed the tragic event.
Reps from the Black Rock City organization gave a statement Sunday saying, "We’re aware this incident has affected not only those who responded immediately on the scene, but also those who witnessed it, and our Black Rock City community more broadly." Support resources were being made available on the playa throughout the final day of the festival, and they added, "Now is a time for closeness, contact and community. Trauma needs processing. Promote calls, hugs, self-care, check-ins, and sleep."
If you are in crisis, text "BAY" to 741741 for free, 24/7, confidential crisis support from Crisis Text Line. And if you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you or they should call the San Francisco Suicide Prevention crisis line at 415-781-0500.
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide: do not leave the person alone; remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt; and call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.