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- Travel Tips
Death In The Bull Run
Mon, 02/25/2008 - 08:55
The following article from the No Bullshit Pamplona Fanzine published by the Pamplona Posse www.pamplona.co.uk it relates to the last foreigner to die in the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. It also focuses on the main bit of advice that Tassio never got. “If you fall down… stay down!” Remember!!
A Siren’s Song
He was just another young American backpacker in the summer of 1995, skylarking his way across Europe with his pals. In the fall, Matthew Peter Tassio would begin his career as an electrical engineer. Until then, he was sowing wild oats.
From Chicago to Greece to Barcelona came Tassio, 22, with his lifelong buddy, Jim Quinn. Tassio, a May 1995 graduate of the University of Illinois, was to join Motorola that Fall. But for the present, with time on their hands and in Spain for the first time, the pair hooked up with two fellow backpackers and embarked upon a fantastic adventure: They would hit Pamplona and run with the bulls during the city’s famed fiesta.
None of the quartet had much money, and hotels were booked solid in the jam-packed city during fiesta, so they settled for an overnight bus trip, planning to return the following day.
Tassio was excited. It was his first trip to Pamplona and its annual festival in honor of its patron, San Fermín. He had no way of knowing it also was to be his last.
Upon arriving at the Pamplona bus station early on the evening of July 12, the four joined the teeming masses in the streets for the all-night party. At fiesta, no one is a stranger, and the foreigners immediately got into the mood, buying red pañuelos, the traditional neckerchiefs, and partying all night with newfound Spanish friends.
At some point during the night of revelry, before the sun rose on the second-to-last day of the fiesta, Tassio and Quinn committed to participate in the encierro, Pamplona’s famed running of bulls through the city’s streets. Initially, Quinn was reluctant to join the run, but he finally caved in to Tassio’s entreaties.
They had not yet met any veterans, since experienced runners tend to avoid the crowded late-night streets. As a result, they received no seasoned advice on the safe way to run. This would be costly.
Do you guys want to run, Tassio and Quinn asked their traveling companions? No way, said the two. We’ll meet you at the bus station to catch the bus back to Barcelona afterward.
Shortly before 8 a.m., Tassio and Quinn stationed themselves inside the barreras, the twin barricades that separate the runners from the spectators in the casco antiguo, the old city, its narrow medieval streets overflowing. There were plenty of experienced runners in the nervous, eager horde, and most of the novices had received at least some basic instructions from the veterans.
Tassio chose to run in the segment of the course known as Calle Santo Domingo, believed by many veterans to be among the most challenging of the tramos, or stretches, of the run. It lies between the corrales, where the bulls are impounded each night before the encierro, and Pamplona’s ayuntamiento, its ornate, baroque City Hall. Here, the bulls are fresh – and looking for something to kill. Quinn wandered off to run elsewhere, promising to meet up with Tassio after the encierro.
Tassio awaited the explosion of the rocket that signals the release of the bulls from the holding corrales. It is not known whether he had participated in the daily ritual prayer at the statue of San Fermín placed in a niche cut into the wall opposite the former military hospital on Calle Santo Domingo. Here, runners seek the saint’s protection during the encierro, chanting in Spanish:
“We ask San Fermín to be our patron.
Guide us in the run; give us your blessing.”
Normally, when the gates of the corrales are opened, the six bulls to be fought that night, along with two substitutes and the steers trained to guide them in their run, rush into Calle Santo Domingo, past the public market and the former military hospital. They then turn left at the top of the street and swing past City Hall through the Plaza Consistorial, the broad public square at its foot. Here the bulls are fresh, bunched tightly, and angry.
While Tassio waited for his encounter with fate, Castellano, a 1,265-lb., reddish bull from the ranch of Torrestrella in Cadiz, brooded silently in the corrales with his brothers, Tacaño, Moravito, Estudioso, Perezoso and Pitillato.
At precisely 8 a.m., the rocket shot skyward and exploded, marking for everyone within earshot the release of the bulls. The strong corrales gates swung open, and Castellano and the others clattered effortlessly up the slight incline of the Calle Santo Domingo.
There are runners known as los valientes, “the brave ones.” These are the “wannabes,” and they are to be found throughout the course. To hear them talk, you would think they are the most heroic of runners. In practice, they have little heart for it, and they flee toward the relative safety of the bullring immediately upon hearing the rocket, rarely seeing or nearing a bull if they can help it. A mindless, churning mass of frightened young men, they immediately took up their flight at top speed; their greatest danger being to themselves.
Upon seeing the stampede of the valientes, Tassio hesitated, momentarily confused. He was woefully unprepared for the bull run, as evidenced by his walking shorts with a sweater wrapped around his waist, probably to ward off the chill night air of the evening before.
He had trotted as far as the Plaza Consistorial from his starting point on Calle Santo Domingo, then stopped, turned and looked back in an attempt to locate the bulls, which had not yet reached him. Suddenly he spied them racing up the hill and around the corner, scattering runners in all directions.
Tassio turned again to flee down course. He tripped over a runner who had slipped and fallen directly in his path. It was here that Tassio made his critical blunder.
If there is a cardinal rule of the encierro, it is this: If you go down, stay down. Cover your head and don’t move. Bulls respond to motion, not to the color of a runner’s garb or the matador’s cape. Once the bulls have passed, someone will give you the “all clear,” and then – and only then – do you get up.
Tassio immediately jumped up.
No one knows what caused him to do it, although guesses centered on panic and inexperience. Many noticed, however, that he turned to flee down course from the onrushing herd.
Castellano, leading the charge, barreled into Tassio at top speed. Some 15 inches of curved, dagger-sharp horn plunged into his lower right back. It hooked through his torso, ripping through major blood vessels. The impact propelled him some 40 feet down the street. It was just 37 seconds into the run.
Castellano, apparently satisfied with his sole, murderous thrust, did not give Tassio a second look. As the pack thundered past, Tassio amazingly once again jumped up. Mercifully, the last straggling bull ignored him. The mortally wounded youth made a final, futile attempt to escape this avenue of death, then crumpled to the cobblestones. His spasms bespoke the ominous nature of his injury.
A crack team of Spanish Red Cross trauma paramedics positioned immediately adjacent to the accident site, leapt over the barreras and within seconds were frantically attempting to save Tassio’s life. Already pallid and cadaver-like, he quickly was placed on a litter as two medics attempted to stanch the massive flow of blood.
“¡Venga, joven! ¡Venga!” one of the medics yelled as he jammed a compress into the gaping wound left by Castellano’s horn. Come on, boy; respond!
They raced the semi-conscious young American through the curious crowd. Blue emergency lights pulsed as the ambulance sped off to the Hospital de Navarra. They arrived just nine minutes after the second rocket, which signaled the bulls were clear of the corrales gates.
It was not quick enough for Tassio.
Although some of the most expert horn-wound specialists in the world worked furiously to save his life, their efforts proved futile. He was pronounced dead at 8:50 a.m.
One of the medics assigned to the ambulance, Jesús María Rueda, later told one of the local newspapers, the Diano de Navarra, that Tassio was near death before reaching the hospital. He had lost, the medic said, 90 percent of his blood through massive hemorrhaging before they could get him into the trauma room.
Meanwhile, at the bus station, the other two backpackers were vexed by the failure of Tassio and Quinn to arrive on time for the trip back to Barcelona. The bus came and went with no sign of the erstwhile runners. While they pondered what to do, a police car carrying a municipal officer and two social workers pulled into the station.
Are you the friends of Matthew Peter Tassio, they were asked? Yes? Would you be kind enough to come with us? Bewildered, piled into the police car and arrived at the hospital social workers at 10:30 a.m. There they received the sad news.
Quinn, faced with the daunting task of identifying his friend’s body at the hospital’s morgue, later was secluded in a room at the Hotel Maisonnave, provided at the city’s expense, to await the arrival of Tassio’s parents from Glen Ellyn, a Chicago suburb. The Maisonnave, ironically, is the hotel of choice for Spain’s top matadores visiting the city.
Tassio was the first American ever to lose his life in Pamplona’s running of the bulls, and was the first fatality since 1980; there have been 13 deaths in the run during this century. His death cast an enormous pall over the city that could not be broken, not by the numerous musical bands that tried, or by the vast quantities of alcohol normally consumed each day during the fiesta.
Novice runners who had seen the ashen-faced body on the litter shivered with the realization that could have been them. Veterans tortured themselves with thoughts of why no one had warned Tassio of the dangers.
“Jesus Christ! He stood up in front of the pack after being knocked down!” cried one of the most skilled English-speaking runners of the current crop. “Why didn’t somebody see he was unprepared for the run and either get him the hell out of there or give him a quick tutorial? Didn’t anybody give a God damn?”
The rhetorical question born of frustration and emotion was directed to a group of veteran runners gathered for coffee at the Windsor Pub in the Plaza del Castillo, the town’s main square, shortly after the fatal encierro. No one answered the speaker, who obviously was distraught and repeatedly was running his fingers through his long blond hair in frustration. Many of them harbored the same thought.
The bullfight televised that evening on TVE, Televisión Española’s Channel 1, was preceded by a moment of silence in Tassio’s honor. Trumpeters of the Peña La Unica, normally one of the city’s most boisterous social clubs, played “Taps.” Around the plaza de toros, one could almost hear the tears that flowed freely from the eyes of 20,000 locals and visitors alike. The bullring, usually a scene of bedlam, was shrouded in a decidedly eerie, almost unearthly quiet.
Veteran matador Juan Moro had drawn Castellano by lot earlier in the afternoon. That evening, he signified with a brindis al cielo, a graceful sweeping gesture toward the heavens with his cap, that he was dedicating his performance to Tassio. Castellano later was to receive, posthumously, the prize as the bravest bull fought during the entire eight days of bullfights.
“The death of Matthew Peter Tassio is a wound in the heart to all Pamplonicas,” the city’s new mayor, Javier Chourraut, said in a July 15 news conference a day after the fiesta ended.
Chourraut told reporters after the tragedy that “citified” Americans particularly are at risk because they fail to see the dangers inherent with wild animals such as fighting bulls. Americans, Chourraut said, tend to think of running the bulls in terms of television programs or Disneyland attractions, adding that most American youths have never been near a fighting bull, a statement hardly debatable.
Throughout the day of Tassio’s death, at the spot adjacent to City Hall where he fell mortally wounded, an impromptu memorial sprung up, fueled by the emotions of the multitude attending the festival. On the curb at the crest of Calle Santo Domingo, a neat mound of memorabilia began to grow: bouquets of roses, hats, caps, hundreds of red fiesta neckerchiefs, pictures of Christ and other religious icons, lit candles of prayer, of reverence and of remembrance.
In the center of the mound lay a copy of another local newspaper, the Diario de Noticias; which featured a photo in graphic detail covering the entire front page, taken at the instant of Tassio’s goring. It bore a handwritten inscription, in Spanish:
“In memory of my American friend I never knew.
Your death has touched us all. May you rest in peace forever.”
It was unsigned. The mound mushroomed in the waning days of the fiesta.
The Festival of San Fermín ended, as it always does, at midnight on July 14 with the Pobre de Mi, the mournful song and candlelight procession through the darkened streets of the old city. After eight days of wild abandon, the revelers sing:
“Poor me; oh, poor me; San Fermín’s festival has ended.”
That year, the melancholy was doubly poignant. When the thousands gathered in front of city hall for the fiesta’s closing ceremony, they surrounded the memorial to Tassio. Spontaneously, they changed the words of the lamentation, slowly swaying as they sang a final salute to the fallen runner:
“Pobre de ti, pobre de ti . . . Poor you; oh, poor you . . .”
That afternoon, Tassio’s parents, Thomas and Cynthia had arrived in Pamplona after a hurried flight from Chicago. They were joined at the airport in the nearby pueblo of Noáin by their son’s traveling companion, Jim Quinn.
Early on the morning of the 15th, they were met by Mayor Chourraut, Bilbao-based U.S. consular officer Hilarión Martinez Llanes, ambulance services director Javier Sebastián, and city officials Rafael López de Cerain and Maite Uriarte.
The fiesta was over.
As if in search for him, Tassio’s parents slowly walked the tramos of the encierro. As they reached the spot in plaza where Tassio fell, his mother placed a bouquet of flowers on the steps leading into the ayuntamiento, the City Hall.
It had been Martinez Llanes’s duty to notify the Tassios of their son’s death. It was not one he relished, and he told local reporters it was “one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do.”
Tough, too, for the grieving parents.
“This has been our greatest loss; please allow us to suffer these moments in solitude,” Thomas Tassio had told a reporter for the Diario de Navarra upon the family’s arrival at Noáin. The Spanish news media that had gathered at the airport for their arrival honored the father’s request. It could not have occurred in the United States.
The Tassios remained in Pamplona for just 21 hours; long enough to visit with the ambulance driver who raced their stricken son to the hospital, doctors at the Hospital of Navarra who fought so desperately to save his life, and city officials.
And then, at 4 p.m. on July 15, the body of Matthew Peter Tassio left Pamplona forever, accompanied by his parents and his buddy. They departed aboard an Air Navarra ATR-42 turboprop aircraft bound for Barcelona, where the entourage transferred to a jumbo jet bound for the United States.
As the Tassios bore home the body of their son, officials of the city of Pamplona quietly, and with solemn dignity, gathered up the articles of the impromptu memorial and took them away. (By Keko Jones No Bullshit Pamplona Fanzine)
Keko Jones passed away this year and his ashes will be scattered in the bull run this year at the fiesta in Pamplona. He was a great writer and a fastastic character at the fiesta. He will be missed.