Fleeing police, a driver gunned a gray Honda Civic through a street barricade and into a crowd of South by Southwest festivalgoers early Thursday, killing two people, injuring at least 23 and casting a shadow over one of the nation’s hippest celebrations of music, movies and technology.
The driver struck pedestrians on a block of Red River Street that had been closed to vehicles, then sped up the street, hitting and killing a man from the Netherlands on a bicycle and an Austin woman on a moped, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said Thursday afternoon.
The driver crashed into a parked van and tried to run away before police subdued him with a stun gun.
Rashad Charjuan Owens, 21, faces charges of capital murder and aggravated assault with a vehicle, police said in a statement. The statement did not provide a city of residence for Owens.
Acevedo indicated that Owens was drunk, but drunken driving was not among the charges police said he would face. Acevedo said investigators have obtained blood samples and were testing them.
A capital murder charge would be unusual in these circumstances. But, Acevedo said, Owens was so intent on evading the police that he willfully drove into the crowd.
“The bottom line is, when somebody’s acting intentionally, and this is a person that was trying to get away, it’s very difficult to stop,” Acevedo said.
Later, he added: “It’s clear for me from his actions, from what I’ve seen, that this is an individual who showed no regard for the human beings that he plowed through in his attempt to get away.”
Acevedo said the crash about 12:30 a.m. transformed Red River Street — which is on the northeast edge of an Austin entertainment district that’s packed at all hours during South by Southwest — into “basically a very long crime scene.”
Most of the pedestrians hit were on Red River between Ninth and 10th streets, he said.
The crash was loud enough to shake the living room of Kirk Visser’s condo, two stories up.
“I knew I had heard metal on a body,” said Visser, 47, who stepped out on his balcony to see people screaming and running in all directions.
Festival moves ahead
Hours later, a pool of blood and bits of broken taillight were still in a crosswalk, and a trail of crimson droplets led to the sidewalk. Still, concertgoers streamed in for another day of festivities, and by early afternoon, bass boomed through the area as bands played scheduled concerts nearby.
South by Southwest, launched in 1987, has grown from a small showcase for up-and-coming bands to an international extravaganza, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors and top music and Hollywood stars. Acevedo said the festival had never experienced a deadly incident like this.
Roland Swenson, the festival’s managing director, said events will continue “through this tragic time.”
“I think it would probably cause more problems for everyone to show up and be turned away from a show than to just move ahead,” Swenson said.
Three people were in critical condition Thursday afternoon, up from two earlier in the day.
“We are going to do our best for them, but these are some of the worst injuries that we see, and not everybody with these kinds of injuries is going to survive,” said Dr. Christopher Ziebell, the emergency department director at University Medical Center Brackenridge, which is about three blocks from the crash site and is where most of the victims were taken.
Massive Music, a company with offices in Amsterdam, New York and London, said employee Steven Craenmehr, 35, died suddenly in Austin. Additional information wasn’t available.
The Travis County medical examiner identified the other fatality as Jamie Ranae West, 27, of Austin. West was on the moped.
Her husband, Evan West, was among those hospitalized.
The names of the injured were not released.
‘Blood on their hands’
Police said the incident started when an officer on a DWI patrol tried to stop a driver at a gas station on the Interstate 35 frontage road a few blocks from downtown. The car took off, weaving between parked cars, and racing the wrong way down Ninth Street before turning onto Red River.
The driver rammed through police barriers — three wooden pieces held up by metal poles — forcing an attending police officer to dive out of the way near The Mohawk nightclub, where the bands X and TEEN had just wrapped up and rapper Tyler, the Creator was scheduled to perform at 1 a.m.
The driver continued down the street, hitting a bicyclist, two people on a moped and a taxi before striking a van.
Only about a minute elapsed from the time the driver was pulled over until the final crash, Acevedo said.
Ted Evans, 29, of New York was watching singer-songwriter Kurt Vile on the outdoor stage at Cheer Up Charlie’s nightclub when he heard what he thought was a gunshot.
“There was blood on the ground. I saw some people who had blood on their hands,” said Evans, who said police stopped shows at both clubs.
A bouquet of flowers sat by a telephone pole in front of The Mohawk on Thursday afternoon. Daytime concerts there and next door were canceled, but the evening’s slate of bands was to go on as scheduled.