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More Details Revealed in SXSW Tragedy

March 13, 2014  |  1:20pm
More Details Revealed in SXSW Tragedy

At 10:30 this morning, media and interested citizens gathered in downtown Austin at Red River and 11th and waited for Austin police chief Art Acevedo to arrive with a coterie of police, EMS and fire officials. There were more than 100 of us, and about 30 cameras, our backs to the barricades that a driver had crashed through after midnight this morning as he attempted to elude police after a DUI stop. In the chaos that followed, the driver left a two-block trail of ruin, killing two and sending 23 others to the hospital. Many of the victims were waiting outside the Mohawk Club, where Tyler the Creator was performing a late-night set. But until Acevedo spoke, the details had been vague. Here’s what he told us.

The driver, who Acevedo described as an “adult black male” and who witnesses said was driving a gray sedan, was first flagged while moving south on a frontage road to I-35 at 12:30 a.m. An officer attempted to pull him over as part of a routine DUI stop (Texas law states that a suspect’s name can’t be released until official charges are filed, which means we won’t know his name and age until this afternoon). The man signaled and turned right into a Shell gas station, and the officer assumed he was attempting to move to a less crowded area. Instead, he drove out the other exit of the Shell station and onto Ninth St., heading east. Due to congestion at the station, the officer was forced to reverse out, and by the time he could call in the pursuit, the suspect had nearly reached the intersection of Ninth S. and Red River. At that point, he turned right onto Red River, forcing an officer to leap out of the way (that officer, whose name was not released, immediately began to give chase).

The officer in the car reached the intersection, but too late to make a real impact. The suspect, after crashing through the barricades, veered wildly as he drove toward 10th St. Most of the victims he hit occurred in this one-block radius. He hit pedestrians, a cyclist and a moped, and at one point drove up on the curb. When he reached 11th St., the suspect struck a van and left his vehicle to flee on foot. He attempted to escape by running west on 11th, but was quickly caught and tased. He was taken to the hospital, but had no serious injuries.

The same could not be said for the people he left in his wake. When the fire department and EMS converged on the scene, they found 25 victims. Their policy is to tag the casualties using a color-coded system designed to differentiate the severity of the injuries. Thirteen of the victims were tagged green, meaning their injuries were relatively minor. Five were tagged yellow, a middle-ground assignation meaning the injuries were more serious but not life-threatening. Five were tagged red, meaning the situation was critical, and all five were taken to nearby University Medical Center Breckenridge. And two—an adult male from the Netherlands who had been riding his bike and a female Austin native on a moped—were tagged black.

(Earlier, it was reported that both of the deceased had been on the moped. This was an error; the man on the moped is in the hospital in stable condition.)

Along with Acevedo and Evans, Austin mayor Lee Leffingwell, EMS Chief of Staff James Shamard, and SXSW managing director Roland Swenson spoke. A good portion of the speeches were dedicated to praising the response teams, who were indeed impressive. The five victims in critical condition (three have since been downgraded to “serious”) were removed from the scene within 15 minutes of the original call, and those with the “yellow” tag were being transported to hospitals within 21 minutes. The whole scene was cleared within 46 minutes, and when you take the sheer amount of people and destruction into account, the efficiency is noteworthy. Evans and Shamard noted that fire and EMS teams undergo ongoing training for “mass casualty incidents,” and though, as Leffingwell pointed out, SXSW hasn’t seen an incident like this in its 27 years of existence, response teams were nonetheless prepared.

Of the 23 victims who were hospitalized, 15 have since been released, and only two remain in critical condition. Many of the questions from the media centered on responsibility beyond the suspect. Could strict DUI laws have motivated the driver to panic? Should the officer have shown caution in pursuit due to the massive crowds? Could the barriers have been sturdier? In response, Acevedo emphasized the “selfishness” of the suspect, and was realistic in his view that if someone commits an “intentional” act of this sort, there’s very little that can be done to prevent it, and he doesn’t foresee significant changes to the security situation during the festival.

At times, Acevedo’s speech took on a dramatic quality, as when he said that to cancel the festival would be “a victory for evil” and that one person shouldn’t be allowed to “ruin a celebration of music and life.” He and Swenson affirmed that the festival would go on as planned. However, some changes have already been made. Stereogum has canceled tonight’s party, which was to be held at the Mohawk Club. Tom Breihan announced the news on Twitter, adding, “glad we’re not partying in an active crime scene.”

Along with “aggravated assault with a vehicle,” the suspect will be charged with two counts of capital murder. This is the highest murder charge an offender can face in Texas, and opens up the possibility that he will receive the death penalty.

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