AUSTIN, Texas — A suspected drunken driver fleeing police crashed through barricades at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, slamming into a crowd outside a nightclub and killing a man and woman on a moped early Thursday, police said.
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said the motorist plowed into people gathered in front of an emptying nightclub around 12:30 a.m., injuring 23 people, five critically. He eventually crashed and tried to make a getaway on foot. A police officer shocked him with a stun gun and took him into custody, Acevedo said at a news conference.
The driver, whose name was not released, faces two counts of capital murder and 23 counts of aggravated assault with a vehicle. He was treated for minor injuries and turned over to police, said Dr. Christopher Ziebell, the emergency department director at the University Medical Center-Brackenridge.
Two people were in critical condition Thursday morning with life-threatening head injuries and three patients remain in serious condition, he added.
“The most critical patients I have a great deal of concern for,” Ziebell said. “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.”
The annual music, film and interactive conference draws tens of thousands to Austin each year, and the toll could have been much higher. The street had been packed with revelers just minutes earlier, but officials had cleared the area to create a fire lane.
“We had a large crowd,” Acevedo said at a 2:30 a.m. news conference. “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.”
Acevedo asked witnesses and those who may have taken video to contact police rather than post it on the Internet. He did not release the names of the victims.
Austin police shut off traffic to about a square mile of downtown for five days during the festival, turning normally busy roads into a large pedestrian mall to help festivalgoers reach dozens of music venues.
The driver rammed through barricades set up on Red River Street on the northeast edge of the entertainment district between an apartment building and The Mohawk nightclub, where multiple acts were to perform Wednesday night. The bands X and TEEN had just wrapped up, and rapper Tyler the Creator was scheduled to perform at 1 a.m.
Scott Jakota, a musician from Indiana in town to play SXSW, told the Austin American-Statesman he was one of the first people hit outside The Mohawk. He said the driver “gunned” the car.
“I was thrown up in the sky,” Jakota said.
Overlooking the street, 28-year-old Ally Hulton from Los Angeles, was on a balcony of her friend’s apartment when she saw the car driving “at full speed” before hitting someone.
“About 10 bodies went flying,” Hulton told the newspaper.
Police said the incident started when an officer on a drunken-driving patrol tried to stop the silver Toyota sedan at a gas station a few blocks away. The car took off, weaving between parked cars then driving at high speed the wrong way down a one-way street.
Upon turning right on Red River Street, the vehicle crashed through a barricade and narrowly missed a police officer. After hitting pedestrians in front of The Mohawk, the driver hit and killed the two people on the moped and hit a taxi cab before finally crashing.
A crime scene unit was still at the scene investigating the crash Thursday.
Acevedo said there were no plans to change safety protocols at the festival due to the accident.
“We do these events very well, but you cannot stop a person who rather than face drunk driving charges decides to speed at a high rate of speed, go around a uniformed officer forcing him to run out of the way, then at a high rate of speed show total disregard for the sanctity of human life,” Acevedo said.