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Near Death In Pamplona: A Chicagoan’s Report From Running Of The Bulls

There’ve been many deadly human pile-ups in the history of Pamplona’s bull run. This year 23 people were hospitalized and one man was left battling for his life when yet another occurred. Chicagoan Bill Hillmann was in the middle of the pack and filed this report.

On July 13th it was the Fuente Ymbro bulls’ turn to run the streets of Pamplona and I was happy because they were noble and majestic, and I always ran well with them. I left early from my starting position at the last section of the course like usual and was striding cleanly in the center of the street with good vision of the herd as it approached. Three galloping black bulls lined up in a loose string with Aitor the best young Spanish mozo running the lead animal. Aitor strode in his tall, long gate in front of the snout of the muscular animal—man and beast in perfect sync. Aitor’s white hoodie with black and red stripes fluttered as I matched his pace and approached, shoulder-to-shoulder with him.

As I cruised beside Aitor a woman tripped in front of him. He started to fall and I surged in and swung my paper behind his back and swatted the bull’s horns to attract him away from goring Aitor. Aitor dropped to the stones and I led the bull and ran in front of his horns. We merged into one speeding force before the tunnel into the arena.

As I stepped into the tunnel a small pile-up of five people tripped me. I tried to leap it and fell flat on my belly. The bull ambled on. I crawled to the two-foot tall opening that lines the bottom of the tunnel and slipped inside. The room is large and empty.

Suddenly screams volleyed in from the tunnel and a powerful roar of horror exploded into the dark room. Dozens of runners flew in through the low opening. I reached down and pulled them in. Suddenly Aitor’s striped sleeve appeared and I yanked him through and to his feet. The inflow of bodies stopped but the dread continued. I got down on my belly to look out. A regal white bull sat at the opening of the tunnel in quiet meditation. At the entrance to the ring a horrific mountain of people jammed the path into the arena. Then the white bull climbed to his hooves. The runners in the tunnel scrambled. I decided I should go out and try to help if I could. The white bull got up and trotted into the pile. I crawled back out into the tunnel and finally clearly saw the hundred or so white and red clad people crushed in the opening to the arena. Twelve gigantic bovine were stacked atop them in the center. The white bull turned and I panicked and nearly jumped out through the slot on the other side of the tunnel, but he didn’t attack. None of them did. They were afraid and the fear mysteriously calmed them instead of igniting them to rage.

Then something gave way and the blockage broke. I helped Josechu nearly close the red metal doors and then followed him in. Regretfully I stepped over the fallen bodies. Then I was onto the sand of the ring. The bulls vanished. I went back to the unraveling pile and pulled people out until they all scrambled away. Underneath it I found a scattered pile of tennis shoes and five slumbering men. Their faces were swollen like big red tomatoes slowly turning blue. All of their mouths were agape but none of them seemed to be breathing. I looked up and the herd materialized and circled the arena dumbfounded.

Afraid that the bulls would return and finish off the unconscious men, I grabbed one of them by the arm and dragged him away. It looked like someone bludgeoned his head with a baseball bat. Others appeared and we picked him up and tried to give him to a Guardia Civil (volunteer police). The officer only yelled at us and waved his baton in our faces. We put the sleeper down on the white sand. I looked at him and knew he was very bad. His face was bluish-purple and he was clearly dying.

A mozo with a colorful shirt yelled and picked him up. I helped carry him across the ring. A Red Cross medic appeared and I screamed “Donde?!” in his face and he pointed. We crossed the ring. There’s an erratic electricity that exudes from the dying; it ejected sparks out into my hands and numbed them as we crossed the ring. The life inside him undulated and surged under his skin, warm in my hands. Suddenly I was exhausted and nearly fell as we approached another tunnel. With the last of my strength we carried him through a door up a flight of stairs. A stretcher flung out of a doorway at the top and we put him down unconscious and purple with his mouth urging for air. As I turned to leave they carried two more in behind him─both asleep and looking very grave. A pale young man gored under his arm walked in─his shirt torn, wet and red. His eyes are wide and strangely placid.

More Guardia Civil appeared. They push all of us away including the gored young man. I yelled “Cornada!” and poinedt at the goring. And I think he got in before the one in the colorful shirt put his arm around me and led me away. I tried to make sense of it all as I climbed out trembling and remembering the way his blood gushed and convulsed under his skin like the life was running, scared to escape.

As I got outside I realized I had to find my wife and I ran down to our place and buzzed and they said she was looking for me at the arena. I ran down to Bar Txaco and they said she was just there, and I rounded the corner and there she was. I took her in my arms and she throbbed and cried and we held each other in a doorway for a long time. Then she finally calmed and smacked me across the face for scaring her and we laughed. She still doesn’t understand why I do this. As my friends appeared safe and health,y I remembered why I run and we all hugged a lot at Bar Txaco.

Then someone told me they’d screwed up with the doors and I sat with my head in my hands and wondered if the young man was dead.

Later, I found out his name was John Jeronimo Mendoza, a 19-year-old from Vitoria Spain. He’d fallen in the pile up. The many people and the immense, six ton herd crushed his chest and suffocated him. He was in a coma and on life support at the local hospital, most people gave him a slim chance of survival.

As I watched the footage of the ru,n I realized that it was partially caused by a man in charge of one of the doors into the ring. He’d opened it to let some of the Guardia Civil in, so they could line the ring walls and batter anyone who misbehaved. There was a huge swell of valientes (runners who run before the bulls arrive), and as the door opened, the valientes pried the gate ajar and that set the stage for the terrible. I remembered trying to hand the Guardia Civil John Jeronimo’s limp body and him waving his baton in my face. I recalled wanting to punch him square in the jaw and I wished I had. Then I saw a video of another Gaurdia Civil carrying one of the sleepers by himself and I stopped blaming them.

But there was more to it all than some mistake at the gateway. The pile already started in the tunnel when the door opened. The Valientes caused it. These uninformed first-time runners often cause folly on the course. Many of them are American tourists who’ve done no research or people who are half-drunk with no sleep, no knowledge, going on rumor and stupidity. For the past six years I’ve given two bull-run tours a day for first-time runners, teaching them the basics, warning them about the dangers and giving them practical advice on how to react and plan their run. I can’t help but wonder if enforcing some sort of mandatory certification for first-time runners could have at once reduced the number of people on the street that morning, and avoided the chaotic pile up all together. I wish I’d had a chance to say something to Pamplona about it. Some way to voice my idea and offer to help.

After more than 24 hours on life support John Jeronemo miraculously woke up from his coma and began to speak. The bull-run I love dodged a major catastrophe, but if nothing changes, I fear for the future of Pamplona’s legendary run.

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