Early Thursday morning, a drunk driver trying to evade arrest, tore through a crowd of South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW) festival-goers in downtown Austin, turning the street bloody behind him. With two persons dead and dozens injured, the driver now faces two counts of capital murder and 23 counts of aggravated assault with a vehicle, according to Art Acevedo, Austin police chief. The driver has been identified as 22-year old Rashad Charjuan Owens from Killeen.
Red River Street, where the incident took place, is home to several clubs that host music showcases as part of the SXSW festival and had been declared a pedestrian-only zone. Most of the crowd gathered there consisted of people waiting to get into the popular live music bar and nightclub Mohawk and those who were leaving a concert that had just ended nearby.
It all began at 12.30 am (CST) when police officers tried to flag down a driver who seemed to be intoxicated at a Shell gas station on an Interstate 35 service road. After weaving through the crowded station, the driver shot through Ninth Street, a one-way, before turning onto the barricaded Red River Street. The police officer manning the barricade was forced to jump out of the way by the speeding car. Acevedo and several witnesses have confirmed that the driver plowed through the crowd at a very high speed, sending bodies flying into the air.
Police reports have said that the driver drove on for more than two blocks, hitting pedestrians, a moped with two persons onboard, a cyclist, and a taxi before finally crashing into a parked van. When the driver attempted to flee on foot, he was pursued and stunned with a Taser gun by the officer, who initially tried to pull the driver over at the gas station. Owens is now in custody.
While earlier reports suggested that both persons onboard the moped had died on the spot, it was later clarified that only one, a local woman, was dead. The man who was riding with her is presently in a stable condition. The other person who died in the horrific incident was a man from Netherlands, who was in the city for the SXSW festival. Witnesses at the scene said that they saw the car gunning into the crowd and that while some were trying to provide first aid to the victims, there were others who sat down on the pavement too stunned to react.
Emergency teams responding to the crash site said that within 15 minutes of the incident, five people who were critically injured were transported to the University Medical Centre Brackenridge. Emergency Room Director Chris Ziebell at Brackenridge said that a total of eight crash victims were being treated there and that two of them were in very critical states owing to severe head injuries. He dubbed their prospects as “worrisome”.
There were others with spinal injuries and minor head injuries among others being treated at Brackenridge. Most of the victims were youngsters in their 20s. Among the ones that were treated for minor injuries and later released was the driver Owens, who was also subjected to a blood-alcohol test. However, the results of the test have not yet been revealed. The recklessness of the driver, who hurtled through Austin’s downtown has turned the popular SXSW festival into a bloody event.
Reacting to the incident and expressing his regrets, Mayor Lee Leffingwell said in a statement that he was angered by the fact that the accident may have been caused by drunken driving, which he said was “never acceptable” and could have deadly repercussions. After the accident, Mohawk cancelled its early morning events and Transmission Events, which owns the nightclub expressed its condolences to the victims and their families on Twitter.
However, the Austin Police Department has urged the SXSW festival organizers to go through with the nine-day festival. Stating that the accident was caused by an individual devoid of any regard for human life, Acevedo insisted that a single individual cannot be allowed “to ruin this great event.” Roland Senson, SXSW director, said his team was stunned by the tragedy, but that the festival would carry on according to plans. They felt, he said, obligated to the people who had come in from around the world to attend the festival. A review of the traffic management plan is on the cards, added Acevedo.
Having begun 27 years ago as a music festival, SXSW has grown to add film, education, interactive technology and ecology presentations to its repertoire. With an aproximate 70,000 people in attendance, the Sixth Street in Austin has been packed with people hopping from one bar to another nightclub, where as many as 2,000 musical showcases are held during the festival. The tragedy, which has turned the festival bloody, has cast a pall of gloom over the SXSW events hosted by downtown Austin. Most recently, the SXSW festival was in news for remotely hosting whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Julian Assange.
By Aruna Iyer