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Show goes on at SXSW after hit-and-run tragedy

AUSTIN — A suspected drunken driver pursued by police roared the wrong way down a one-way street and crashed through police barriers at a festival here Thursday, killing two people and injuring 23 more, officials said.

Yet, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo and other officials say the show must go on.

The tragedy outside the Mohawk, a popular bar and live music venue, cast a pall over downtown Austin as the Texas city plays host to the annual South By Southwest festival. SXSW draws tens of thousands of people for its program of films, music and interactive technology.

Acevedo called the rampage an “intentional act” and said the driver faces two counts of capital murder and other charges. KVUE, citing two sources, identified the suspect is Rashad Charjuan Owens, 21.

Acevedo said he encouraged organizers to push on with the nine-day festival, which is expected to draw 70,000 people to music, film technology and education programs.

“This is an individual who showed no regard for the human beings he plowed through,” Acevedo said at a press conference. “We can’t let one individual ruin this great event.”

SXSW director Roland Senson said organizers were “stunned” by the tragedy but most programs would take place as planned.

“We feel an obligation to the people who have traveled here from all around the world to keep going with the event,” he said.

Acevedo said officers initially tried to pull over the driver at a gas station on an Interstate 35 service road around 12:30 a.m. CT Thursday. The driver fled the wrong way down a one-way street and turned onto a street that had been closed after a concert. Acevedo said the Toyota sedan hit pedestrians at a “high rate of speed.”

STORY: Witnesses share updates on social media

Acevedo said the driver then hit a man and a woman on a moped, then a taxi and a van, before stopping the vehicle and fleeing on foot. The driver was pursued, shocked with a stun gun and taken into custody.

A local woman on the moped and a bicyclist from the Netherlands were killed. Two of the injured remain in critical condition, Acevedo said.

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“We had a large crowd,” Acevedo said. “I just thank God that a lot of the folks had already been pushed on the sidewalk or this could have been a lot worse.”

Chris Ziebell, emergency room director at the University Medical Center Brackenridge, said the driver was treated for minor injures and released into police custody. Ziebell said a blood-alcohol test was taken but he did not release the results.

Eight patients were taken to UMC Brackenridge. Ziebell said two people have head injuries, and the director said he has a “great deal of concern and worry” for them.

“These are some of the worst injuries that we see,” he said.

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell released a statement sending thoughts and prayers to victims and their families. “Austin Police Department is investigating this matter as allegedly involving drunk driving,” the statement said. “If this is true, this fact angers me. Drunk driving is never acceptable, and can lead to deadly consequences.”

South By Southwest began 27 years ago as a music festival. It has expanded to include film, interactive technology, education and ecology presentations. Austin’s Sixth Street, about three blocks from the crash scene, is packed each night Mardi Gras-style with festival-goers bouncing between the bars and nightclubs where many of the more than 2,000 musical acts play during the event.

Festival events included movie premieres for actors from Robert Duvall to Seth Rogen and musical performances from Coldplay to Lady Gaga. And each day has dozens of panel sessions with appearances from speakers including Mark Cuban, actress Lena Dunham and Chelsea Clinton as well as former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (both who spoke via satellite).

The Austin Convention Center is usually quiet early in the day, but on Thursday ‘it seems quieter,” said Callie Reynolds, 21, an Ohio University audio engineering student. She and Hannah Mengos, 20, and about 20 other students flew to Austin to network and to get class credit at SXSW.

They were at Stubb’s BBQ waiting to hear Damon Albarn perform when the rampage took place.

“Everybody was waiting around and he seemed angry that he couldn’t play, but no on knew what was going on,” Mengos said.
Suddenly, each of them saw their Twitter accounts light up with reports of the accidents. “It was scary and made everything real,” Reynolds said.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by the tragic accident that took place last night here in Austin,” festival organizers said in a statement, adding that the crash will result in some scheduling changes. “We appreciate and commend the first responders as well as the city agencies who so quickly sprung into action.

Contributing: Mike Snider, Kim Hjelmgaard and John Bacon, USA TODAY


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