South by Southwest Crash.

Austin, Texas.

March 13, 2014, 12:31 am

By Devin Greaney

For ESCI 3100

April, 2016 

The crash site minutes after the disaster. An Austin American-Statesman photojournalist was at the Mowhak Club shooting photos when the accident occurred. Photo by Jay Janner, Austin American-Statesman.


When a car crashed into Austin, Texas' biggest annual event, resources were strained as police, fire, EMS, hospitals and festival goers pulled together to get help for 25 casualties that covered two city blocks and all took place in the span of about 20 seconds. This paper will look on the preparation and response recovery and future mitigation of this crash that stunned both Austin and the music world. 

South By Southwest (SXSW) began as a music festival in Austin, Texas in March, 1987.  To capitalize on the city that calls itself the "Live Music Capital of the World" a  music festival  for unsigned bands was a natural fit. The festival has grown every year  going beyond just unsigned bands making mid March Greater Austin's busiest time of the year. In 1994  the festival added a film and interactive/ multimedia component drawing even more interest and people.  ( SXSW: 2014)

What has also grown significantly is Greater Austin. (SXSW 2014) The metro area in the 2000 census had a  population of 1.25 million. In 2014 the estimate was 1.94 million. All area agencies- police, fire, EMS and hospitals- in addition to the day to day job of keeping people safe, training and creating a progressive emergency management system, public safety agencies here more than most places have had to manage the challenges of a ballooning population. ( Robinson: 2016) 

On March 13, 2014  at 12:30 am, the temperature was 50 degrees, there was no rain and a slight breeze ( Weather Underground). Music lovers were out enjoying the music, weather and liquid refreshments. The veteran rock band “X” was close to finishing  at the Mohawk Club at 10th and Red River. About a minute later  the 27-year-old festival would experience its darkest moment. 

Thursday March 13, 2014, 12:30 am

Austin Police Department attempted to stop a car driven by Rashad Owens heading south on the  frontage road of I-35 during a saturation for DUI. Owens then pulled into a gas station at the northwest corner of 9th and I 35 acting like he was going to comply with the police. Dash cam video show the clock changing to 12:31 am when Owens sped off westbound on East 9th, then turned immediately north on Red River and crashed through a barricade set up to make the street pedestrian only. ( KXAN: 2014) 

Roberto Villalpando, Robert Calzada .Austin American Statesman

After crashing through barricades, the car sped through two blocks hitting 24 people, some being thrown in the air. The car raced on crashing at 11th and Red River, and then police gave chase on foot, quickly stunning the suspect with a taser device and arresting him.The entire  incident from when Owens decided to take off to when he crashed lasted 37 seconds. Two of those struck were dead on the scene, two others would die at the hospital in the days following. Owens was also briefly hospitalized after the accident giving Austin police, fire and EMS a total of 25 patients. (KXAN: 2014) 


Austin public safety had years of experience to learn that SXSW would be big. Among the 9 days in 2014, 85,469 registered to attend the conferences - music, film and interactive- but many others not registered descended on the Capital City to attend one or more of the activities. ( SXSW: 2014). Recent figures by the organizers estimates it and directly and indirectly brings about $317 million into the area economy with visitors from around the world. (Swiatecki: 2015)

 A press conference just a few hours after the incident confirmed that exercises were staged imagining a mass traffic accident as part of getting prepared for the festival. This way public safety agencies and the hospitals  were all on board as to what to do and who would be in charge. "This is an example of collaboration, coordination and  a lot of training between fire, police and EMS," said Austin Fire Chief of staff Harry Evans  (KXAN: 2014) 

"We train for the MCI events and the mass casualty events we have pre planned  for every big events like this," James Shamard, chief of staff of Austin Travis County EMS said in the morning press conference.  "When the crews show up in the middle of the day we review the plan for how we're going to handle the typical patient but also the mass situation even if it were to happen." (KXAN: 2104) 

Another form of preparation came through technology that even the most forward-thinking SXSW attendee of the festival's early days would have trouble imagining.  Austin public safety agencies created a SXSW "Geo Fence" to make the area into its own emergency district,  almost a city within a city. Below is a map that shows the area. Commander Michael Benavides, public information officer of ATCEMS, explained the system. "When a call came in via 911 it would be routed to our normal EMS communications center. Once the incident was determined to be inside the event footprint, one of our communications medics would process (triage) the call while the second would dispatch the closest appropriate response resource. They were working in tandem with each other in order to minimize the dispatch time." 

Let's say someone made a 911 call for a chest pain at Barton Creek Square Mall which is outside of the geo fence area. The call would route to the 911 call center, the primary answering point, and the call taker would forward to the ATCEMS communications medic/ dispatcher there in the same building to give instructions to the caller and dispatch the closest available ambulance.  But if a call came in from East 6th and Brazos,  within the perimeter set up for the event, the call taker would enter the location or it would pop up on the screen in the computer aided dispatch system,  a flashing alert would inform the call taker it was within the SXSW geo fence. The call would be who sent to another communications medic  set up at the Event Operations (EvOC) Center. That communications medic would send the closest and most appropriate-based on the nature of the call- asset to the patient. In addition those public safety agencies assigned to the geo fence were on their own talkgroups. ( Benavides: 2016) 

Commander Bendavides, said within the geo fence of the area the agency had staffed two medics on motorcycles to quickly reach patients, Two medic response units were on Polaris Rangers, which are smaller ambulances and designed to quickly evacuate patients to the  casualty collection point for assessment. If the patient decides to go to the hospital then one of the  two ambulances  transports, then  returns to the casualty collection point. 


1 mile

This map of 2016  SXSW gives an idea of the area covered. Each dot is an EMS call. Courtesy City of Austin

in addition to the previously mentioned personnel  a division chief and a logistics officer were also on the scene. Offsite were the commander in the command post  and  communications medics at the Event in a follow Operations Center. 

One can easily see the many possibilities for geo fencing technologies  for emergency management now the technology is there to pinpoint the almost exact location of a land and cellular telephone. Most cities have their big events such as Memphis in May, a Presidential Inauguration in Washington DC or the New Year celebration in New York City. In addition to giving those in the SXSW area quickly and adequate police, fire and EMS services, commander Benavides wanted to make it clear  the primary benefit is to that the rest of Austin knows their emergency services are not lessened due to the festival. ( Benavides: 2016)


The Austin Fire Department was also part of the rescue, said Chief Austin Fire Chief of Staff Harry Evans. 24 firefighters and two commanders made it to the scene, (KXAN: 2014)  and Station One on 5th Street is in the middle of the festival. Stations 2, 4,6 and 7 closely surround the perimeter on the north, south east and west. All Austin firefighters are either emergency medical technicians or the higher-level paramedics which gave even more medical personnel to assist with the injured. It should be also noted that among a diverse group of those at the event, skill sets came into play from basic first aid on up. Jessica Cohen ( the red haired woman in the top photo) was working the sound board about three blocks away but she was also a long-time medic came out to help. Attendee Deven Penn did CPR on Sandy Le and she did regain a pulse, but died two days later. Paramedic Mike Kittok later said he saw attendees keeping patients from aggravating possible spinal injuries and using tourniquets to stop bleeding. Far from getting in the way, participants did what they could to pitch in. ( Dexheimer: 2015)

Green, Yellow, Red and Black

James Shamard, said in a morning press conference at the scene, the first EMS call came in at 12:32 am with units on the scene almost immediately (KXAN: 2015). 

First there was triage. In a mass casualty training, triage helps make sense of the situation if there are more patients than providers. In the triage system created by Disaster Management Inc, patients in a mass casualty incident are broken into four categories and are adorned with color-coded tags: Green are  referred to as the "walking wounded." These patients are ambulatory and treatment can be delayed without danger of death or disability. Yellow patients are injured and need hospitalization, are not ambulatory but not critical either. They have respirations between 30 and 10 per minute, perfusion based on capillary refill is two seconds or less. They can also follow commands and/or answer simple questions. "What state are you in?" or "Who is the President?" are common questions. Red tags are critical patients. They are either breathing more than 30 times a minute or less than 10, they cannot follow commands or capillary refill is more than 2 seconds. These are the first priority in transportation. When coming upon a patient with no respirations, responders adjust the patient's airway and if still no breaths are detected, they are given black tags and no rescue is attempted. Though CPR is generally attempted when there are sufficient rescuers on the scene of a traumatic cardiac arrest, survival is extremely rare so resources are better used on other patients. (Schlaggs: 2008)  This incident had several of all categories. (KXAN: 2014)

After the crash, an additional five ambulances were called into the scene from other areas in Travis County.

EMS Polaris vehicle. Courtesy ASAP911

The first asset arrived almost immediately. All of the critical or "red" patients were off the scene fifteen minutes after EMS arrived. The "yellow" patients were off  in 21 minutes. Units made multiple trips due to the proximity of the scene to the hospitals. The final transport left at 1:22 am, fifty minutes after the crash. ( Benavides: 2016)


The one bright spot was the accident was in Downtown Austin, close to several hospitals. University Medical Center at Brackenridge was closest at about 3 blocks away and the area's level one trauma center. Though it was clearly unorthodox, one of the Polaris vehicles transported one of the critical patients to UMC Brackenridge. 

Level 4 trauma facilities were where the others were taken. St. David's- Medical Center is 1 ½ miles away. St David's-South Austin, 6.2 miles away. 

Seven were initially  taken to UMC-Brackenridge. Being a level one trauma center they received all the critical "red" patients and an additional patient was transferred there from another hospital when it was discovered his injuries were more severe than initially assessed. Thirteen were taken to St. David's-South Austin, four to St. David's- Medical Center. (KXAN: 2014)

Frank Urias, EMS liaison for Seton Hospitals which owns Brackenridge, says during SXSW hospitals downtown expect a 5-10% increase in patients, usually alcohol or drug related incidents, plus there is also an increase in motor vehicle and auto/pedestrian accidents. He says they do not normally increase staffing as it's not cost effective, but they do make the staff aware of the many traffic diversions in the area to keep personnel available. (Urias: 2016)

Almost immediately Brackenridge got a call from the on site ATCEMS commander, he remembers. They began moving patients who were not in serious condition from rooms into hallways. Five minutes later, in came the first patient. (Urias: 2016)

"Triage is relative to the event," he said. "We got six critical patients but St. David's got an assortment that would have gone to Brackenridge under normal circumstances." Yes, he or she may be seriously injured and in a lot of pain, but not in danger of death.( Urias: 2016) Take Mason Endres, 17, who had a concussion, a fractured cervical vertebra, a broken femur, nose and a severed artery  in her leg. ( West: 2014) Under normal circumstances it would have been an almost reflexive action for EMS to take such a patient  to Brakenridge, but she was run  to St David’s- Medical Center. These were far from normal circumstances. (Urias: 2016)

Two other hospitals with emergency departments are located further away from the accident than St David's- Medical Center is, yet they are still closer than St. David's- South. None of the ambulances from the crash went to Austin Heart Hospital or Seton – Medical Center. This was not an oversight but by design.

Past experience shows, Urias said, that the hospitals closest to a mass casualty are filled up quickly by ambulances with the most critical patients. But many times an equal number come on their own or driven by others. Those patients would have been more likely to go on their own to Austin Heart or Seton Medical Center about 3.5 miles away so taking the relatively minor injured patients  to St David's  South 6.2 miles to the south freed Seton Medical Center and Austin Heart for any additional patients who might come in and assured  all of Central Austin's hospitals did not have to go on diversion for other injuries and illnesses. ( Urias 2016). By the morning press conference, fifteen had been released according Shamard said. ( KXAN: 2014)

Public Information

Benavides, who handles media relations, remembers “I received a call from one of the medic commanders. He called me around midnight and said 'I don’t have time to talk, Mike just turn on your radio start paying attention and I'll call you back.' I did and the first I heard was all the traffic about the multiple casualties. I got up and started putting on my uniform and contacted ( deputy PIO Captain) Darren Noak and told him that I was responding and for him to monitor the radio, manage the tweets, phone, email, media pager - all the behind the scene stuff." Benavides sent out the initial Tweet that EMS was responding. ACTEMS routinely sends tweets out for calls that may have a high degree of interest. (Benavides: 2106)

Upon arriving he estimated there were about 60 members of the media already there. Benavides said he corralled the media to a street corner and had an officer stationed there. As a criminal investigation was underway, fewer people entering and exiting  the two block crime scene meant fewer opportunities  to corrupt evidence and less confusion when officials were ready to make a statement.

Disseminating public information began to change not long before the crash, but this event helped cement. The decision was made a few months earlier on to use multiple public information officers based on the specialty rather than just one to speak for the event. Benavides referred to it as "staying in our lanes." Police would discuss the criminal investigation. EMS would discuss patients and conditions. Hospitals would discuss how many patients were released or their status. This prevented a lot of police needing to check on patient statuses or a fire department PIO having to double check with or give wrong information when asked by the media about a police matter. In addition ATCEMS felt their message was getting lost and a uniformed PIO would give the sense of what ATCEMS does. He admits there was some reluctance and pushback that day as this was a relatively new system for dealing with the media, but since that time area PIO’s have been much more comfortable with this system. (Benavides: 2016)

The media had their role to play as well. The next day they were alerting the area for blood donations. O + and O- were most needed. An article "How You Can Help" by KUT reporter Nathan Bernier seemed to be responding to a desire many have after a tragedy to do something. ( Berneir: 2016) Personal note. I was living in Austin on September 11, 2001 and can attest to the Blood and Tissue Center of Central Texas being packed that day, putting my name on a list, leaving for several hours and returning to donate. One could say "Austin cares" and maybe that is what locals were thinking, but with world-wide attention and people from all over the globe being temporary Austinites, it may have been more a case of a community coming together, no matter where there permanent addresses happened to be. 


When responders are in highly stressful moments they go into "work mode" with the stress coming out later often in negative ways so CISM is a way to avoid burnout which can turn into insomnia, irritability, self medication or worse. Dr Carol Logan, psychologist for the Austin Police department, confirms via email request that after the crash there was a Critical Stress Incident Management session set up for the responders to deal with the stress of the incident.  The CISM  was inter-agency but due to privacy laws, she could give no further details. 


On November 6, 2015 Rashad Owens was found guilty of capital murder. He was given life in prison without parole. 


The next year some enhancements were added. Water-filled barricades replaced the wood and metal ones that offered no protection from the speeding car. Though it seems strange NOT to have these barricades given what happened, Dr Kara Kockleman, an engineering professor who specializes in transportation at the University of Texas- Austin, says not so fast. The barricades that are large and encumbering to a speeding vehicle are also difficult to move in case police, fire or EMS are needed. Keep in mind EMS liaison Frank Urias pointed out many typical SXSW patients are alcohol and drug emergencies and heavy barricades could delay an ambulance. “It could be a worse outcome if we can’t get personnel and equipment in there quickly," Kockleman said to KUT radio.  ( McGee: 2104) 


It has been said the goal of recovery is to get things back to some semblance of normalcy.  Perhaps one could recovery began when SXSW officials decided to let the show go on.  At the news conference Austin Police Chief Acevedo said "We urged them to continue with this great venue. We cannot allow one individual with his selfish acts who cared only about one person and that is himself to ruin a worldwide celebration of life and music and if you cancel it would be a victory for evil."  (KXAN: 2014) Some things will always be different. People will experience aches and pains, sometimes for a lifetime. In the back of their minds, those there that night and maybe all Austinites may have a new sense of vulnerability.  As good a symbol as any for ongoing recovery is Mason Endres  who was mentioned earlier. On June 6, less than three months after the crash, she walked across the stage - without crutches- to receive her high school diploma. ( Betts: 2014)

Austin American-Statesman


Benavides, Michael. phone interview by the author for an upcoming article January 19, 2016

Benavides, Michael.  phone interview by the author March 1, 2016

Betts, Chris SXSW Crash Victim Walks Across Stage to Receive her Diploma. KVUE TV. June 4, 2014. June 7, 2014

Bernier, Nathan"How you can Help" KUT radio. March 14, 2014


Dexheimer, Eric. "One Tragic Night. One Year Later. Austin American Statesman. March, 2015

KXAN TV, "Police Chief, City Officials Give Latest Details on Deadly Crash ( press conference with Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, Austin mayor Lee Leffingwell, SXSW director Roland Swenson, ACTEMS James Shamard, Austin Fire Chief Harry Evans)." March 13, 2014.

McGee, Kate. "South by Southwest Crash Raises Concerns about Barricade Safety" KUT Radio. March 14, 2014

Robinson, Ryan. "Austin Area Population Histories and Forecasts" City of Austin Planning and Development. January, 2016

Schlags, Mike. "START MCI Triage Systems and  Tags" Firefighter Nation. October 8, 2008

Scott, David. "First Weekend of SXSW sees Beefed Up Barricades"  KXAN TV. March 13,2015

Swiatecki, Chad "SXSW Economic Impact Grows Slightly from 2014. Austin Business Journal. September 15, 2015

SXSW Music festival press release. 2014

Texas Department of Health.EMS Trauma Systems. 2016

Urias, Frank. phone interview by the author. March 10, 2016

Weather Underground

West, Kelly. "SXSW Survivor Gets Private Concert in the Hospital" Austin American-Statesman. March 15, 2014