By Ashley Dean and Quentin Young, SecondStoryGarage.com
AUSTIN, Texas — A suspected drunk driver is facing capital murder charges after crashing through a barricade and plowing into a crowd at the South By Southwest music festival early Thursday, killing two people and injuring 23.
At a news conference late this morning, Austin police Chief Art Acevedo said “a handful” of people remained hospitalized. Two still are in critical condition, down from five overnight, and three are in serious condition.
Acevedo said the two people killed in the crash were not both on a moped, as police originally believed. The woman on the moped died at the scene, but the second victim was a man from the Netherlands who was on a bicycle.
Police said the driver — identified by the Austin American-Statesman as Rashad Charjuan Owens, 21, of Killeen, Texas — will be charged with two counts of capital murder and several counts of aggravated assault with a vehicle. He has been booked into jail pending further investigation, police said.
At an overnight news conference, Acevedo said the driver initially was stopped at a Shell gas station on the frontage road along I-35 on suspicion of driving while intoxicated.
The suspect fled in his car and police pursued him to Red River Street, where he broke through a barricade closing the street off for the music festival and struck two dozen people, Acevedo said.
“There’s only one person responsible for this, and that’s the person with no regard for the sanctity of life,” Acevedo said.
Witnesses reported seeing bodies flying, and people, trying to help, crouched over the injured. Emergency responders arrived quickly to the scene and shut down Red River Street between Ninth and 11th streets, where the incident occurred.
Concerts taking place in nearby bars, including Cheer Up Charlie’s and Mohawk, as part of the festival were shut down, though shows in the surrounding venues went on.
Many of downtown Austin’s streets are barricaded to only allow pedestrians during the annual festival, which draws hundreds of bands and tens of thousands of music fans. As one of those streets, Red River was filled with people when the suspect drove through at what Acevedo could only say was a “high rate of speed.”
South By Southwest organizers today issued a statement saying much of the festival will go on, but that there will be schedule and venue changes in the area surrounding the fatal crash.
“Despite all of our preparations for dealing with a major incident during SXSW, nothing could really prepare us for how this feels,” Managing Director Roland Swenson said in a written statement. “As much as we would like to just go home and spend time absorbing the shock of this horrific event, we feel our best use is to continue to operate today.”
Ed Ward, who was involved with the creation of the festival, said small incidents inevitably occur at an event such as South By Southwest, adding that it was remarkable that nothing like the tragedy that occurred early Thursday had happened before.
As unfortunate as the incident was, he doesn’t think festival organizers could have done anything to prevent it.
“It has nothing to do with the festival,” he said. “It’s an accident. It’s a random thing that happened.”
Before this week, the worst South By Southwest incident Ward could recall was when, years ago, a girl was slashed with a bottle outside a club on Sixth Street.
Tammy Perez, a photographer who was freelancing for the Austin American-Statesman, was one of the first people to see the aftermath of the accident.
“I’m looking, and it doesn’t sink in at once, what I saw,” she said.
Perez was at Mohawk just ahead of Tyler the Creator’s scheduled performance when a friend shouted to her to see what was going on outside. She instinctively raised her camera, thinking it’d be just another weird Austin moment.
Instead, Perez saw people crying in the street. She saw police and civilians bent over the injured, trying to help. She a body partially covered with a coat, legs sticking out.
“They’re taking them off the streets and people are just crying. It’s traumatic,” she said. “At that point it was just really hard to take pictures. I was sick to my stomach.”
When Perez spoke with the Daily Camera around noon Thursday, she hadn’t turned in her photos. She was past her deadline, but she said she just couldn’t look at them yet.
Instead, she had been fielding calls from concerned friends and contacting other locals to check on them. For her, this was a shock to a community she’s been a part of for 10 years..
“We all know each other. We’ve all been working together forever,” she said. “It sunk in and I’m trying to make sure everyone is OK.”