Burning Man Accident


This was initially typed Monday, Sept 14th, 1998 my 50th birthday. I was just feeling well enough to do this then. Here is a description of my accident:

I was attending Burning Man , an art performance event in the Nevadah Black Rock desert over the Labor Day holidays when I was hurt. I cannot describe this event, even were I well enough to write a long description. The web site and many articles publicizing the event do not do justice to the experience. It is not for everyone, but I enjoyed it immensely up until when I got hurt.

I rode into the encampment on Thurs night on my bike and found my friends' camp. I of course haven't ridden since. I will only say that I brought way too much food, water, shade, and especially clothes, having been persuaded of the seriousness of brining everything one needed to survive in the desert for days, especially send vending is outlawed at BM. But everyone else had brought so much and there was so much sharing, that it was unnecessary.

I was having fun. I was hurt Saturday afternoon, the 5th, about 2pm. Someone had built a "land yacht": a huge steel-tubed frame with sails and truck tires. My guess is it weighed about a ton, at least with the people on it. The general shape was a "t" with the cross being an outrigger with the front tires. The rear, main tires were on far back on the body of the "t" under the captain and crew, topped with an umbrella.

When I saw it, there were lots of people on the craft and it was being pushed. It needed pushing in order to get any wind. It was a community effort, like much of BM. Everyone helps out and participates. I helped push on the right outrigger. The wind was slow and it was heavy, so we did more pushing than riding. The captain was exhuberant and circumstances would indicate that he was both inebriated and incompetent.

But for a while, nothing mattered, since we weren't going anywhere fast. We were out beyond the main camp in the area where people had erected temples and other objects de art, including the Burning Man himself. The captain turned us inwards toward camp.

About this time a wind came up - really the beginning of a large storm. We started moving a little. About this point, everyone began loudly advising the captain to turn back out towards the open desert. But he kept heading inwards toward camp and all of its fixed structures. At first, I hoped he might have a plan but it proved to be just bad judgement.

In fact, as we picked up speed, he headed straight for the Temple of Rudra. Now, we were all shouting at him. As the collision seemed imminent, I decided to jump off. And indeed he crashed into the temple, injuring some people, within seconds of my departure. (And I am told that the artists working on the temple came out and started using their welding torches to disassemble the yacht.) Ranger Bob Smith was first on the scene and documented the fantasic subject in the storm.

Unfortunately, when I jumped, I tried to run in the direction of travel but could not keep up an stumbled and fell. Since I was on the outrigger outside of the yacht body, and the back wheels were on the body, and since I was running slightly to the outside, I expected to miss them.

Alas, as I looked up from the ground after my stumble, wheels were bearing down on me. Great big black ones with "death" written on them. I had only time to kick at the tires to try to twist my body out of the way to avoid being completely crushed.

I am not entirely sure what happend. This may have been the right back set of wheels were bearing down on me. Perhaps the craft was still turning to the left, in a futile attmpt to avoid the temple, and the wheels were defining a circle, chasing me.

Or, it may have been that since I jumped at the last second, and did succeed in running to the outside, away from the rear wheels, that I was hit by the outrigger wheels, after the craft had already crashed and was bouncing back! I did see the outrigger wheels nearby after the crash because people were warning the craft away, to keep it from running over me again. One of the outriggers broke away. Perhaps it hit me somehow. I wish I could find an eyewitness who was watching me and not the oncoming crash.

Whatever happened to me, the BM festival is lucky that the yacht crashed into the temple. It was picking up speed and headed into camp. A large heavy vehicle running into tents at that speed would have likely killed people. (Why did they prohibit planes from taxing within 5 miles of camp and not this device?) It was already going faster than I could run by the time it hit and it would have had a lot more space and wind before it hit the rest of camp.

Back to me. The tires bent my foot over itself and crushed only the ankle. Some other things may have happened as my left pelvis bottom is bruised and a right lower back muscle is pulled. I had hoped it wasn't as bad as it felt, but one look revealed that it was no longer an ankle. Foot pointing in stange direction, bones sticking out, etc. Ugh. I started yelling and people started attending. No fun being held down in a duststom until the ambulance got there.

I won't go into the 4-hour long ambulance ride from hell and how I had to forcibly disengage myself from the spinal board in the ER, but I had an emergency operation in St. Mary's, a hospital in Reno and was discharged Thurs afternoon. I will say that

I was worried about my stuff but my motorcycle buddies at BM were way ahead of me. Dave Doudna showed up first with my billfold and other essentials, like my tolletries and keys. AND went out and bought me books to read. The next day, Lissa Shoun and Eric showed up with clothes and exchanged the things I didn't need.

All these guys had already located my keys and stuff, gave me what I needed and hauled the rest back for me. Other folks from BM and motorcycle riders from Reno, including Dave Rankine who took one of these photos, stopped by to visit me also. Chris Steinbroner was riding 2 up on a BMW ST just like mine with Nancy who rode mine back for me. Chris is working on both of our bikes and Nancy posted a glowing report of her experience on the ST.

My friend Linda Cicero picked me up at the San Jose airport and took care of me Thursday evening. My friend Saskia Hartley has taken care of me this weekend and my Austin friend Stacy Ericson is flying in today to take care of me all this week. I've talked with many friends by phone so far and have had many offers of help, especially from Wolfie (who when I was well enough to travel, later had me up at his place for a long time of care and feeding).

I'm off to see the Palo Alto doctor this morning and then I will know better a prognosis.

September 14th continued:

The doctor says all is well and the most dangerous period for infection is past. Next Thursday, he will remove the stitches and put on a permanent cast. Friday is my annual physical. :) That cast will be on for about a month. Then I get a weight-bearing cast for shome shorter amount of time. After that, it is getting the stiffness out. The big question is how much I may have damaged the cartilege in the joint. The doc says the ER surgeon did a great job putting together a lot of bits and pieces. Linda picked me up and took me to a very nice birthday lunch.

Since this report, I've tried to send out regular status reports. The main purpose of this page is to relate the basic accident story. My accident history and recovery schedule is: CYBORG:

One x-ray shows the plate holding 8 screws and the other x-ray shows more clearly the 2 screws at the bottom. These x-rays were taken at 7 weeks after the accident and the bone looks good to me.

The doctor doesn't want to remove the hardware until next year sometime, possibly Feb or Mar at the earliest. I plan to make a nice wind chime.

And I did! Linda Cicero took this digital shot of the wind chime on 9 Mar 99. The part on the top is an old uneeded part of my motorcycle sidestand.

LATE Update. This is unlikely to illicit sympathy, but just to let you know where I'm at. Sigh.

On Mar 14th, I took Lauryn and Jeremy to the rock climbing gym and I couldn't resist bouldering a bit. OK, ok, I shouldn't have. But I knew my bones were stronger than the doctor thought and the pit was made of rubber scraps, so I wouldn't refracture the bones. And I didn't when I fell.

But I pushed the ankle forward in the direction it was still swollen and wouldn't bend properly. And the fall hurt like the dickens. And would not stop hurting. Uh oh.

Today, April 5th, after no healing and still a lot of pain, I went in for an x-ray. Because I exceeded the flexibility of the ankle, one ligament pulled away some bone chips where it had attached to the bone. They will have to be removed. After a CAT scan and follow-up consultations, I will probably have another minor surgery on May 14th. And I probably won't be climbing mountains this year. Maybe next. Back to bicycling.

So, take it easy out there. I may try that.

Thanks to all my friends for their care and support.


I have more pictures in hard copy.
See the BM part of Dave's Trip Report.
Check out those by Eric Butlers.
See also the experience reported by Joshua Samuelsen.
Steve Lerner has one picture of the crash.
And finally, there are lots of pictures from different people but especially see the ones from Graham because he has shots and discussion of the yacht crash.

Finally, there are claims the captain was drugged against his will and plans to bring back the land yacht. NOT if I can help it, and I have already discussed banning such vehicles from BM with the rangers. I have also corresponded with the yacht captain.

PS there is just a lot of good photography and stories that shows what BM is all about.

Last modified: Mon Aug 14 15:40:31 PDT 2000