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National
SXSW tragedy: 2 killed, 23 hurt as car speeds through crowd
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SXSW tragedy: 2 killed, 23 hurt as car speeds through crowd

SXSW tragedy: 2 killed, 23 hurt as car speeds through crowd
Photo Credit: Jay Janner

SXSW tragedy: 2 killed, 23 hurt as car speeds through crowd

Fleeing a routine early morning traffic stop in downtown Austin, a suspected drunken driver crashed through a police barricade and sped down a street crowded with South by Southwest festival-goers, killing two and leaving a horrific trail of injured pedestrians over two blocks before hitting a taxi and a parked van.

Twenty-three people were taken to area hospitals. Two remain in critical condition with severe head injuries. Six others also remained hospitalized Thursday afternoon, including three in serious condition with injuries that include a spinal fracture, head injuries and other problems.

“The two critical patients I have a great deal of concern and worry about,” said Dr. Christopher Ziebell, emergency room director at University Medical Center Brackenridge. “Not everyone with these injuries survives.”

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The driver — identified as Rashad Charjuan Owens, 21, of Killeen — was struck with a police taser and arrested as he tried to flee on foot. He was treated for minor injuries at University Medical Center Brackenridge and released into police custody, where he will face two charges of capital murder and 23 counts of aggravated assault with a vehicle.

“That vehicle was used as a weapon, and he will be charged with those crimes,” Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said.

One of the dead, a Dutch musician and music agency employee identified as Steven Craenmehr, was riding a bicycle near the intersection of East 11th and Red River streets when struck. The other, an Austin woman on a moped, also was killed. Both were pronounced dead at the scene, officials said.

Another rider on the moped, a man, was injured.

The incident began around 12:30 a.m. Thursday when an Austin police officer tried to pull over a suspected drunken driver on the Interstate 35 frontage road. The driver pulled into a Shell gas station at East Ninth Street, using his turn signal and “feinting as if to yield” before speeding the wrong way down down Ninth Street, Acevedo said.

The suspect turned right onto Red River, crashing through a barricade and forcing a uniformed police officer to leap out of the way to avoid being struck, Acevedo said.

Red River, which was closed to vehicles, is home to many popular clubs that were hosting South by Southwest music showcases, and horrified music fans watched as the speeding four-door sedan slammed repeatedly into pedestrians, a bicyclist, moped and a taxi before jumping a sidewalk and striking a van in a parking lot, Acevedo said.

While the suspect was being chased down and arrested, witnesses sprang into action to help the wounded, shaking off the shock to help stanch the bleeding or merely hold hands in comfort, live music playing in the background.

Emergency crews, deployed throughout downtown for South by Southwest, arrived within minutes via motorcycle, bicycle and small off-road vehicles.

Frequent training in handling mass casualties paid off, said James Shamard, chief of staff for the Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Services, as the first crews to arrive began to triage patients. Cards marked with red were placed with five of the most critically injured, who were taken to nearby University Medical Center Brackenridge within 15 minutes, Shamard said.

Five victims with lesser injuries were given cards marked in yellow and taken to St. David’s Hospital and South Austin Medical Center within 21 minutes, Shamard said. Thirteen tagged with green cards, indicating non-life-threatening injuries, were taken to other hospitals within 50 minutes, he said.

Black-marked tags were placed on the man and woman who were pronounced dead at the scene, Shamard said.

Most of the pedestrians hit were between Ninth and 10th streets, said Acevedo, who urged anybody who witnessed the crashes to call Austin police at 512-974-5186.

Police will reassess procedures used to block off streets during special events, as is common after a tragedy, Acevedo said, “but when somebody acts intentionally, it’s very difficult to stop.”

A person “willing to drive down a street, mowing people down, will crash through or go around a barricade,” he said. “This is an individual that showed no regard for the human beings he plowed through … to get away.”

Sturdier barricades can pose other problems for emergency crews and vehicles that need access to widespread events such as South by Southwest, he said.

The suspect, Owens, was booked into Travis County Jail at 5:44 a.m. No bail was set.

Police obtained a search warrant for blood samples to assess Owens’ blood-alcohol level and are awaiting results, Acevedo said.

Acevedo said he urged South by Southwest managers to continue with planned events. “We cannot allow one individual, through his selfish acts … to ruin a wonderful event, a worldwide event,” he said.

Roland Swenson, managing director of SXSW, said staff are contacting all venues to determine if events will change. Several cancellations have been announced.

“As much as we’d like to go home and spend time absorbing the shock of this horrific event, we feel our best use is to continue to operate today,” Swenson said. “We will announce changes to the schedule as they occur today.”

In the hectic moments after the series of crashes early Thursday, witnesses described a chaotic scene.

Scott Jakota, a musician from Indiana in town to play SXSW, said he was one of the first people hit. He said the driver “gunned” the car, “and I was thrown up in the sky.” He appeared to have a leg injury and was being helped by his friends.

Ally Hulton, a 28-year-old from Los Angeles, was smoking a cigarette on the balcony of her friend’s apartment on Red River when she saw a car drive down the street “at full speed” before hitting someone.

It then appeared to accelerate into a crowd of people, she said.

“About 10 bodies went flying,” Hulton said.

An American-Statesman photographer on the balcony of the Mohawk nightclub at the time of the incident said he saw some bystanders attempting to provide first aid to victims while others sat stunned on curbs with their hands over their mouths. He said the band playing at the time, X, finished its set, unaware of what had happened.

Transmission Events, which owns the Mohawk, said on Twitter: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims and injured from tonight’s tragedy. Please check and make sure everyone you know is home safe tonight.”

With additional reporting by Philip Jankowski, Peter Blackstock, Nancy Flores, Ben Wermund and Jay Janner.

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  • Congressional Republicans left Capitol Hill late last week excited about the prospects for sweeping legislation which would deliver tax cuts and tax reform, as with approval of a House tax bill, the focus has shifted to the Senate, and whether GOP leaders can muster the needed votes to approve a slightly different GOP tax measure after Thanksgiving. “This bill gives Americans more take home pay by cutting taxes and preserving deductions for home mortgage interest and charitable contributions,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) – while he’s on board, only a handful of GOP Senators are expected to determine the fate of this legislation. Here’s where things stand on Capitol Hill: 1. Remember, there is more to do than tax reform. Yes, Republicans want to get tax reform done by the end of the year. But there are other measures which will need attention as well after the Thanksgiving break. For example, the Children’s Health Insurance program needs to be reauthorized, and has been in limbo since October 1. A temporary federal budget runs out on December 8, and there still hasn’t been a deal announced on how much Congress will decide to spend on the discretionary budget, which is what funds pretty much everything outside of mandatory spending items like Social Security and Medicare. There had been talk earlier this year of a possible government shutdown showdown, but that seems unlikely right now, because it would really get in the way of GOP efforts on tax reform. House Speaker Paul Ryan still wants all that spending work – a giant omnibus funding bill – done by the end of the year. House Speaker Ryan: Don't intend on stopgap government funding into next year. — DailyFX Team Live (@DailyFXTeam) November 14, 2017 2. A rush of spending seems likely. 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Ron Johnson (R-WI) has said he wants major changes on how small businesses and pass through businesses are dealt with. Don’t count the bill out yet, but there is a lot of work to do. And one thing is for sure – someone will be watching them very closely. Republican Senators are working very hard to get Tax Cuts and Tax Reform approved. Hopefully it will not be long and they do not want to disappoint the American public! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 20, 2017 4. Some items you probably won’t see in 2017. One item that won’t be acted on this year is an infrastructure bill. President Donald Trump has talked about his grand $1 trillion infrastructure program since the 2016 campaign, but at this point, there is still no detailed plan, and there is no bill in the Congress. On immigration, there’s still lots of talk about wheeling and dealing on DACA and border security, but I’m not sure there’s the political will to do that. 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The cuts included in the President’s budget have pretty much been ignored by lawmakers, and it took the White House three disaster aid bills before any offsetting budget cuts were proposed. Meanwhile, the yearly federal deficit is trending back up, and with the disaster relief bills, and an increase in the federal budget caps, there will be more red ink in 2018. Only a few Republicans have stuck with their familiar call for budget discipline. Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) on adding $1.5 trillion to the deficit: “If this was a Democratic bill we wouldn’t even be voting for it. That’s how hypocritical this place has become.” https://t.co/H5FduNppVH — MainStream Coalition (@ksmainstream) November 17, 2017
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David McKinley (R-WV), who made the case for historic preservation tax credits, which were eradicated by the House GOP tax reform bill. “Without the credit, projects that transform communities in all 50 states, from West Virginia to Texas, to Wisconsin, simply will not happen,” McKinley said on the House floor, as he asked for Brady’s word that he would help reverse the decision. That didn’t happen. “I commit to working with him and continuing to work with him on this issue because I know the importance of it,” Brady responded, making sure not to guarantee anything in some of these floor exchanges. For Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), a staunch advocate of the GOP bill, he asked the Chairman of the House Ways and Means to do more in terms of tax help for the people of Puerto Rico, whose island was devastated by Hurricane Maria. “I look forward to working with you on ideas to best serve the people of this island,” said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), who thanked fellow GOP lawmakers for their concerns, but made no promises. For Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY), the issue was with a new excise tax from Republicans that would be levied on the endowments of private colleges and universities. Barr said that would harm Berea College in his district, a ‘work college’ that uses its endowment money to pay the tuition of all students. It was noted in press stories back home. Barr Fights for Berea College in Tax Reform Bill – https://t.co/YoBgs5CWvp – — BereaOnline.com (@bereaonline) November 16, 2017 “I was pleased to learn that the Senate version of the bill exempts schools with fewer than 500 tuition-paying students from the excise tax,” Barr said, urging Brady to accept that position in any House-Senate negotiation. 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Unlike some of the other requests, Brady acknowledged that the GOP tax bill would “unintentionally” change the tax rate for the Alaskan settlements, agreeing to focus on this in conference as we finalize individual rate structures between the House and the Senate.” Others weren’t so lucky to get a guarantee of action, as they pressed for changes in maybe the most controversial part of the GOP plan, which limits a deduction for state and local taxes. “I am concerned about its impact on some of my constituents in Maryland who pay high state and local income taxes,” said Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), the only Republican member of the House from that state, which would be one of the biggest losers on the SALT issue. That subject also drew two California Republicans to make the same appeal to Brady later in the debate; Rep. Mimi Walters (R-CA) and Rep. 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