Burning Man Set to Ignite Amid Sandstorm, Suicide

The Man won't officially be set on fire until Saturday night, but this year's Burning Man has already had its fair share of fireworks.

A festival-goer apparently committed suicide at the celebration Thursday, with his body hanging in a tent for more than an hour before passersby realized he was actually a dead man, not a prop decorating the tent.

And two days earlier the 40-foot-tall wood-and-neon Man was prematurely set on fire, allegedly by a disillusioned former devotee of the festival, leaving organizers scrambling to repair damage before Saturday's official burning.

Burning Man is difficult to accurately describe, and with a population of about 40,000 revelers, hippies and Silicon Valley scions — reportedly including the founders of Google — it is different things to different people. At its heart is an annual festival of art and music dedicated to self-expression and environmental care. Clothing is optional, and drugs and alcohol abound.

And so each summer Black Rock City, a temporary oasis in the Nevada Desert, comes to life with festival-goers bringing little more than supplies for the week, an anything-goes attitude and a promise that when they depart, they will leave behind no trace or trash to hint they were there.

The scale and magnitude of the city that literally comes together and disbands in a little more than a week's time often have an arresting, surreal impact on festival-goers.

"I haven't done anything hallucinogenic at all … but because of the way it's set up, because of all the lights … it often feels like you're hallucinating things out here even though you're not," said a festival-goer named Dan, who asked that his last name be withheld. He is at Burning Man for the first time.

"There are so many naked people around here that you begin to lose track of that as a weird thing," Dan said.

He said he was surprised to see that hard drugs were not as prevalent as he had expected — and that there were even some children in attendance.

"It's kind of like a world fair in a sense. The magnitude of it totally surprised me," Dan said.

Suicide Discovered

The man police think committed suicide Thursday has not yet been identified, according to Ron Skinner, the sheriff of Pershing County. He said the man was between 20 and 25 years old, had light brown hair, a slender build and was nearly 6 feet tall.

"Currently he is John Doe because we don't have identification on him. We don't have any missing persons reports to go off of. We're hoping that somebody misses this young man soon," Skinner said.

The body was discovered around 8:30 a.m. Thursday in a themed tent where partygoers gathered. Skinner said that for between one and 1½ hours people entered and left the tent without noticing that the man had killed himself. The tent's interior decorations already created a "surreal scene," and some people who went in the tent initially thought the hanging man was just another prop, Skinner said.

With phone service and Internet access spotty in the desert, news of the suicide has been slow in circulating across the temporary metropolis.

"It's a major city and I didn't know about the suicide until I just happened to have e-mail here," said Dan, the neophyte festival-goer. "I told other people about it and they were surprised to hear about it."

Two days earlier, at about 3 a.m. as festival-goers watched a lunar eclipse, the 40-foot namesake for the festival was prematurely set on fire. Tuesday's blaze burnt about 85 percent of the structure before it was extinguished by the Black Rock City Emergency Services Department, leaving some spectators puzzled and forcing organizers to put together a less-elaborate version for tonight's ceremony.

"It was in plain sight of many people," Andie Grace, a Burning Man spokeswoman, said. "Everyone is looking at it this morning, this big black figure in the sky and that wasn't supposed to burn, saying, 'Now what do we do?'"

Police have charged Paul Addis, a San Francisco-based actor and writer active in the arts scene there, with arson, illegal possession of fireworks, destruction of property and resisting arrest, according to Skinner. Addis has since posted bail.

Addis used to be a regular attendee of the conference during the mid-1990s, but in an interview with Wired Magazine he said he stopped going after 1998 when he became disillusioned with a festival he thought had lost touch with its initial spirit.

"Burning Man was only advocating social impact and responsibility in the name of its own self-preservation, survival and expansion, and I was not willing to be part of that," Addis said in the interview.

Addis did not admit to setting the effigy on fire, but he did say that, whoever did it, it was a fitting protest of what Burning Man has become.

"One, it was a reality check. Two, it was a history lesson. It was, 'This is why this started. Why are you here?'" he said in the interview.

Soon after the rehabilitated Man was resurrected, a powerful sandstorm swept through the calm desert, snapping tents, sending festival-goers scrambling for shelter and stirring up some urban legends, one person at the festival said.

"They put a new man up that they rebuilt, and as soon as that man was up, we had a dust storm that lasted the entire day," Dan said. "I've heard from some people that putting this Man back up caused that wrath."

Despite the travails, the festival is proceeding on schedule.

"We have the means and the will. The event continues on schedule, and the Man will burn on Saturday night," Grace said in a statement.

But Skinner said that as the festival continues to grow, making it run smoothly and safely is becoming more of a challenge. He said his office, which normally has a staff of about 12 officers, has contributed between 14 and 18 police officers to policing the festival, with many of them being temporary hires contracted specifically for the event.

"We've experienced a huge increase in participants," Skinner said. "We are having to work at keeping our resources up to speed, yes, but it's not an impossible task."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.