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Dirt, Cement Collapse Plexiglas Coffin, Killing Magician

November 1, 1990 GMT

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) _ A clear plastic coffin buried under 6 feet of dirt and wet concrete for a Halloween escape trick collapsed under the weight and killed the would-be Houdini locked inside with chains and handcuffs.

About 150 people, including the magician’s children and wife, watched as aides frantically dug at the dirt and cement to try to rescue Joseph Burrus.

″They attempted to get him out, but it did no good,″ said Police Lt. Roger Enmark.

Burrus, a recovering addict, was performing the stunt to benefit a drug treatment clinic.

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The 3 feet of dirt and 3 feet of concrete were estimated at 9 tons.

Burrus, who billed himself as ″Amazing Joe,″ said before the stunt that he considered himself a successor to the great escape artist Harry Houdini.

″I consider myself a master of illusion and an escape artist. I believe I am the next Houdini and greater,″ Burrus said.

″To me, that is what an escape artist is: to put myself in an impossible situation and get out of it.″

Burrus was handcuffed and wrapped in chains, locked inside the coffin, lowered into a 7-foot-deep grave and buried.

Burrus completed a similar escape last year in Salem, Ore., getting out of the coffin through a side panel and digging his way up through the covering of soil.

He had said Wednesday’s attempt was his first to escape through a layer of concrete.

″He told me he had perfected this act and said he was a recovering addict and wanted to do this show as a benefit,″ said Charles Lewis of The Third Floor, a drug rehabilitation group for which Burrus was doing the stunt.

After the coffin was lowered into the grave, aides shoveled about 3 feet of dirt into the hole. A cement truck poured another 3 feet of wet concrete into the grave.

″As soon as we finished and the truck pulled away, the whole thing dropped. The cement busted the coffin. It buried him alive,″ said assistant Sean Henderson.

″Immediately everyone went into action to get him out,″ said Mark Crosse, a photographer with The Fresno Bee. ″I heard cracks. ... Somebody yelled, ‘get a paramedic’ and ‘does anybody know CPR?’ ″

A backhoe dug a hole alongside the coffin to drain the concrete while workers frantically shoveled dirt from the grave.

Burrus was declared dead at the scene, Enmark said.