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A Moment of Silence at South by Southwest

Artists and raving tourists who felt invincible—their biggest challenge dealing with static lines—were now thinking and talking about a crime scene, a speeding car, and the sight of dozens of people mowed down or flung into the air right next to them.

by Lauren Schwartzberg
Mar 14 2014, 5:03pm

Photo via Wikimedia user Jdlrobson

“Hope you’re OK! There was a crazy accident,” my phone flashed at 2:47 AM on early Thursday morning. I was walking out of South by Southwest's Warp x LuckyMe showcase, high on life and other things. “2 killed, 21 injured…” came next. Around the corner a drunk driver had rammed right through a barricade into a street as busy as Times Square. That's when the willful frenzy of South by Southwest—the interactive, film, and music festival held in Austin, Texas—stepped out of everyone’s control.  

A drunk driver trying to avoid a mandatory DUI checkpoint veered into a gas station, drove the wrong way down a one-way street with the police chasing him, and then wildly turned onto Red River Street, the home of legendary venues like Stubbs, the Mohawk, and Cheer Up Charlie’s. There, he took out a massive crowd trying to get into the Mohawk for Cities Aviv and Tyler, the Creator.

I woke up to texts and emails from friends, family, and co-workers. “Are you safe?” became the new “Happy South by” and “So fun!” within hours. Artists and raving tourists who felt invincible—their biggest challenge dealing with static lines—were now thinking and talking about a crime scene, a speeding car, and the sight of dozens of people mowed down or flung into the air right next to them.  

“I’m not from New York, so I don’t want this to come off the wrong way, but it felt like 9/11,” a girl I met at a late afternoon Little Dragon set said. She’d been at the Mohawk waiting for Cities Aviv to start when everyone started rushing to the window and the venue shut down sound check. “The street was covered with people lying on the floor, friends giving friends CPR,” she said.

Earlier that day, I interviewed Bishop Nehru and the first thing he brought up was the Crash. He had been at the Mohawk too, hoping to attend his first Tyler, the Creator show. “I saw people running, and I thought it was because Tyler came on,” he said, lowering his head, his eyes losing focus. “It turns out people were dying and stuff. Terrible.”

Austin during SXSW is a town of rules and regulations, with the city attempting to maintain some sense of control as tens of thousands of guest residents descend upon it. The first day I arrived, my little brother was stopped by a police officer and got a warning ticket for jaywalking. Just about every show is “at capacity” when the venue looks half full. The fire marshal will shut it down, they say. Instead the heightened security causes a massive pile of frustrated bodies overflowing out onto the sidewalk and street. Everyone thinks this is what’s safest for the city and it’s residents. That’s when the utter chaos of it all sets in. 

In 2012, for the first time in six years, drunk-driving deaths in Texas increased—and by almost 5 percent, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. That year 10,322 died in drunk driving accidents. That’s 28 people a day throughout the state.

The murderer, now identified as Rashad Charjuan Owens, was caught and taken into custody Thursday morning. He’ll face two counts of capital murder, a crime worthy of the death penalty in Texas, and 23 counts of aggravated assault, according to a spokesperson for the Austin Police Department. He’s actually a rapper named KillingAllBeatz or K.A.B254. According to the Austin American-Statesman, he was scheduled to perform that night in East Austin. Instead, he killed potential new fans and pissed on the community spirit of the music festival, leaving a great deal of sadness and mourning in the performance's place. 

In the wake of the accident, all the journalists, musicians, promoters, and PR agents attempted to walk the paradoxical line of respecting the dead and injured while getting on with their jobs at the festival. At 12:15 AM on Friday morning, almost 24 hours to the moment the drunk driver chose to ram through the barricades, after a full day of concert hopping and general ruckus, the MC at an A3C hip-hop showcase grabbed the mic and silenced the crowd. “I know you all heard about the tragedy around the corner,” he said, turning all the way down. “I want us to take 30 seconds of silence to just reflect and remember.” People, who'd been raging on the days before, sat down their beers and tucked away their phones and started quieting down. Up until that point, this year's South by Southwest for me had been defined by its cacophony, from the disparate tunes of musicians and the pounding of journalists' keyboards and iPhones to the haunting of sirens and screams that faithful night. But for a full 30 seconds, every person in the bar retreated into his or her own mind and fell completely silent, together. Thirty seconds later, the MC announced the next act.

Follow Lauren Schwartzberg on Twitter.

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Rashad Charjuan Owens
Red River street
Fatal Crash