A joyous festival was cut tragically short Saturday night when a man burned to death after leaping into a huge ceremonial bonfire.
As a three-story wooden effigy, inspired by the creatures from Where the Wild Things Are, burned to mark the culmination of the Element 11 festival in Grantsville, hundreds of festival-goers watched in horror as Christopher Wallace of Salt Lake City broke through a safety barrier, danced wildly for a few moments and ran full speed into the flames.
"He looked like he was having a great time. He was running out there. He was dancing a little bit," witness Daisy McDonald told KUTV. "All of a sudden he jumped into the fire. It’s like he didn’t even know it was fire. It’s like he thought it was just a playground."
Fire safety rangers were unable to stop Wallace from tossing himself into the inferno. Witnesses said they saw Wallace’s hand rise up from the flames as he died.
"The whole time I was thinking, ‘He’s gonna walk out. He’s gonna be okay,’ " McDonald said. "I thought he was gonna survive."
Wallace, who was in his late 20s or early 30s, had told other festival-goers earlier in the day that he planned to kill himself by jumping into the burning effigy, said Grantsville police Lt. Steve Barrett.
"This is what he was going to do, and it’s what he did," Barrett said, adding that neither security rangers nor firemen could have prevented Wallace from killing himself. "It took not even seconds. He was just through the barricades and into the fire."
Grantsville police reviewed video footage recorded by witnesses before determining that Wallace’s death was a suicide. The effigy had been burning for about 30 minutes when Wallace leapt into the fire at about about 11 p.m. Saturday, said Grantsville police Lt. Steve Barrett. Firefighters on scene tried to extinguish the flames but could not save Wallace.
"It was shocking to everybody," said Grantsville Mayor Brent Marshall, who did not witness the burn but visits the event site each year to perform a safety inspection. Marshall expressed his sympathy not only for the family of the dead man but also for the people who witnessed the suicide.
"Horrific things get embedded into people’s minds," Marshall said. "It’s a tragedy any way you want to look at it."
Element 11, or E-11 for short, is a so-called "regional burn," one of dozens of smaller-scale events affiliated with the Burning Man arts and culture festival that takes place in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert every August. The event drew 1,200 attendees, several hundred of whom were on hand when Wallace dove into the burning effigy.
Grantsville police contacted Wallace’s wife Sunday before releasing his name to the public. Police have asked medical examiners to do a toxicology report to determine if Wallace had drugs in his system, Barrett said. That report should be available in two to three weeks.
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