FRESNO — A magician who compared himself to the legendary Harry Houdini and had himself buried inside a plastic-and-glass coffin for a Halloween night escape trick was killed when the coffin collapsed under tons of dirt and wet cement.
Joseph Burrus, 32, a recovering drug addict, was performing the stunt at a local amusement park, Blackbeard's Family Fun Center, when the coffin unexpectedly collapsed.
As trick-and-treaters watched in shock, rescuers frantically dug Burrus out but were unable to reach him in time.
"I consider myself a master of illusion and escape artist," Burrus said before the stunt. "I believe I'm the next Houdini and greater."
Harry Houdini, considered the master of escape artists, died on Halloween night in 1926.
Burrus had done the escape-from-the-buried-casket stunt successfully a year ago in Oregon using only dirt over the coffin.
Wednesday night, wearing a white tuxedo, Burrus was handcuffed, wrapped in chains, locked inside the see-through coffin and then lowered into a seven-foot-deep hole.
Crews started pouring wet cement into the hole from a cement truck until Burrus knocked on the casket lid asking them to stop.
"He said the chain was too tight (around his neck) and was choking him," said Sean Henderson, a resident of the Third Floor drug recovery clinic. Burrus was staging the stunt as a benefit for the clinic.
"We gave him time to slip the chain from his neck. After he got that done, he wanted the locks back on and asked us to start burying him again," Henderson said. The crews put another three feet of dirt into the hole and then began covering that with three feet of cement.
"As soon as we finished and the truck pulled away the whole thing dropped," Henderson said. "The . . . cement busted the coffin. It buried him alive."
Witnesses said they could hear the plastic and glass of the coffin shatter from the estimated nine tons of cement and dirt. The crews worked frantically to exhume the casket, but efforts to revive Burrus were unsuccessful.