Five months after Aaron Joel Mitchell ran into a wall of fire at Burning Man’s pinnacle celebration last year, some but not all questions surrounding his death are being answered.
His parents still have no idea why, nor his friends. His mother is using God to help her heal; his friends, recollections of his adventurous life.
“Honestly, he was the closest thing to Jesus, in a new age way,” said his friend, Justin Berry, who was with Mitchell the entire week before he ended his life.
The Sacramento County Coroner’s Office has officially ruled Mitchell’s death a suicide, though the office listed the cause of death as cardiac arrest, bodily shock and third-degree burns on 97 percent of his body, according to the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office final report.
Mitchell, 41, ran into Burning Man’s central effigy as it was engulfed in flames on Sept. 2. He died the following morning.
Burning Man, which attracts nearly 70,000 people to Northern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert each year, lasts a week before participants encircle the effigy to watch it burn to the ground under a dramatic display of fireworks.
Mitchell “spoke about end of life,” during the festival, according to the death certificate, obtained by the Reno Gazette Journal until last week.
The University of California, Davis Medical Center treated Mitchell, though staff did not conduct an autopsy report since the cause of death was apparent. While the hospital has not publicly released any further records of Mitchell’s death, medical staff told Mitchell’s mother, Johnnye Mitchell, no trace of drugs or alcohol had been detected.
“(The coroner’s office) called one time, but we never heard anything more. It was just a short conversation,” Johnnye Mitchell said. “We’re doing pretty good, but that’s one of the hard things, we don’t know why it happened.”
Soon after the event, Mitchell’s mother wrote a handwritten letter to Burning Man organizers, thanking them for their efforts and received a number of condolences in return.
“We were just so thankful, so grateful for the people that risked their lives to save his,” she said.
A kind adventurer
Mitchell was originally from McAlester, Oklahoma but lived in Switzerland with his wife, Ladina. He met his wife while he was traveling in Nepal, where she too was backpacking.
“Not from me, I don’t know where he got that sense of adventure,” Johnnye Mitchell said. “We’ve lived in McAlester all of our lives. It’s a lot of ranches, a state prison and an ammunition plant.”
His mother was unaware of any mental health issues, she said, and he was never a troublemaker. He had more friends than she could count, evidenced by the friends that showed up from all over the world to attend the multiple memorials held in his honor.
Most photographs, even when he was young, show Mitchell with a warm smile, heather blue eyes and, in more recent years, with light sandy hair past his shoulders.
When he phoned, roadtripping from Oregon to Nevada, her son sounded “festival’d out,” Mitchell said. It was the last time she spoke to him.
Mitchell’s friend of more than 13 years, Justin Berry, had been with Mitchell the entire week. Berry and Mitchell knew each other from when Mitchell lived in the Pacific Northwest. They used to have wild times going to see one of their favorite jam bands, Wide Spread Panic.
“He was like my mentor. He did yoga every morning. He made smoothies every morning. He was like Jesus to me,” Berry said of Mitchell, whose friends called him by “Joel,” his middle name.
“He was a carpenter, he wore Jesus sandals, he always helped, he was magical,” said Berry.
Mitchell bought Berry’s ticket to Burning Man, not a cheap gift considering that most tickets cost more than $400. Berry thereafter bought an RV, which Mitchell drove into the event.
Berry had no idea that he would be driving it out without his friend.
A week to remember
Mitchell danced the days away at Burning Man, but the nights were different.
While friends would venture out to through-sunrise parties and ride electric scooters far and wide among the colored lights, Mitchell would go to bed early, before 10 p.m., Berry said.
“I’d take his phone from him (when he was sleeping), and I’d go and take photos of everything from the night,” Berry said.
As Mitchell slept, his friends took selfies in the desert night, and they later showed him all of the sights and sounds past dusk.
The entire week, he was abstaining from any drug use and only drank modest amounts of craft beer during the event, Berry said. He often meditated, and he’d make smoothies for all of his campmates, weary from the hottest year of Burning Man that anyone could recall.
On the night of the “Man” burn, however, Mitchell separated from his usual group to join some friends from Switzerland, Berry said.
“I wish we had all been together, I don’t know that this would have happened,” he said.
When Berry found out after the burn that his friend had run into the fire, he rushed back to the camp. There was little that he could do. Mitchell was likely being rushed to the hospital by then.
“Maybe in some weird way he did this for us, to inspire us to make better decisions. I wish that he could have made better decisions, because he’s not coming back from this,” said Berry, who plans on returning to Burning Man this year.
Berry still has photos of his friend from years past, but, when Mitchell ran into the fire, he had the phone with all of the photos his friends had taken for him during their nights of whimsy.
Berry spent months after Mitchell’s death hardly able to speak of him, and it still is beyond difficult. He wants to do something special for his friend while at this year’s celebration, but he’s not sure what yet.
“I feel like it’s my job to go back and represent him,” said Berry.
He wants people to remember him for the incredible teacher, hard worker and goofy dancer he was, not the image of the the dark figure running into flames that went viral in the hours after Mitchell’s death.
“No one knows what was going through his head. It only took 12 seconds,” he said.
What’s next for Burning Man
Mitchell was not the first person to die at Burning Man.
Alicia Louise Cipicchio, 29, died after she was hit by a vehicle at the event in 2014, and Michael Furey, a close friend of several Burning Man founders, died in a motorcycle accident in 1996. It is unclear how many other deaths have occurred at the event, as Burning Man is currently reviewing records of incidents at the event.
Each year BLM officials and Burning Man organizers report on improvements needed to better safety, security and health standards. The Bureau of Land Management and Burning Man organizers together are currently reviewing last year’s event and planning for the 2018 event, Aug. 26 to Sept. 3.
There are no current changes to how the event will be operated, but the federal agency also has not listed the stipulations for this year’s event, according to BLM spokesman Kyle Hendrix. Such conditions are usually disclosed with the issuance of the event permit in early August.
The terms of the permit are subject to change, taking into account Mitchell’s death last year, Hendrix said.
“If it prevents someone from dying, who cares? The fire is so big, you’re going to see it,” said Berry, who’s in support of such preventative measures.
Mitchell’s mother, on the other hand, feels that everything within reason has been done to make the event safe.
“They had a lot of barriers. I don’t know what they could have changed,” Mitchell said.
Since her son’s death, she’s leaned on her church community and faith for support. She has little left of her son besides some clothes, photos and his high school yearbooks.
“Everybody loved him, he was really kind, he just was such a good kid,” Mitchell said.
“It’s just a mystery,” she said.
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