On March 17, merchandise manager Derek Buell fell 30 feet from a balcony at South By South West. I read the news the next morning while scrolling on my Twitter feed and my heart sank. Although I do not know Derek personally, I have friends who have worked with him. I was filled with questions; the first of course, being, is he going to be okay?
I came across a GoFundMe page for his medical expenses, which provided updates. When he first arrived at the hospital, he was unresponsive, and placed into a medically-induced coma. He suffered a broken neck, two broken wrists, and fractures to his face, skull, and vertebrae, but thankfully, his condition began improving over the past few days. By March 20, he was on Twitter and stated that he was up and walking.
I am relieved that he is alive and on the path to a full recovery. But why did this tragedy have to happen in the first place?
Over the past few days, I have attempted to research this incident in order to find some sort of explanation. I want to know how it happened. What was he doing up there? Was he working on lighting or sound equipment? Was he alone? Was there scaffolding? Was there any fall protection in place? Who is at fault? Was the festival insured?
The most surprising thing of all, was that I found nothing. When researching the incident, all I could find was the aforementioned GoFundMe page, his personal Twitter, and a brief Alternative Press article. There was nothing on any other news outlets, like Austin, Texas local news or any major music publications. SXSW itself did not publish a press release or even an informal announcement about the incident.
SXSW is one of the biggest entertainment and media festivals in the world, and yet there was no media coverage of Derek Buell’s accident. SXSW is attended by nearly 100,000 registered participants and 400,000 unaffiliated attendees. I find it appalling, as well as embarrassing, that SXSW publicists have not said a thing.
Physical safety should be at the forefront of festival planning and operations. This incident is an opportunity to discuss safety precautions that should be taken at every festival. The most important thing is that Derek is recovering, however, I can’t help but think of how this incident should have been handled differently by those at SXSW.