WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A man who set himself on fire on the National Mall on Friday was hospitalized in critical condition after bystanders used the shirts off their backs to tamp down the flames, police and witnesses said.
Police responded to an emergency call about a fire shortly before 4:30 p.m. EDT on the Mall lined by Washington’s famed Smithsonian museums, said police spokesman Hugh Carew.
“The evidence appears that he set himself on fire,” Carew said. “But the investigation is ongoing.”
The man, who has not been identified, was conscious when he was taken to Washington Hospital Center. He was in critical condition Friday night, according to the hospital Twitter feed.
A helicopter landed in the middle of the Mall to transport the man.
The apparent self-immolation in the heart of Washington’s tourist area rattled the city a day after a car chase that began at the White House ended in a fatal shooting outside the U.S. Capitol.
Nicole Didyk, an environmental engineer for the Federal Aviation Administration, told Reuters she was out for a run when she saw spotted a man with small flames on him.
She said she watched in shock as several men rushed towards him, searching as they ran for water or blankets.
“Nobody had anything so they just ended up pulling off their shirts and tamping him down with them,” Didyk said. “They got him to sit down and roll on the ground to put (himself) out.”
Throughout the ordeal, the man on fire “was stunningly silent,” she said. “The men that put him out told me that while they were putting him he was telling them, ‘Thank you, thank you.'”
She said one of the bystanders who rushed to the man’s aid told her afterwards that he had seen the man carry a red gas can from the direction of the Capitol.
“The guy told me that he was standing in the middle of the Mall facing the Capitol, and he poured the can over his head and then lit a match,” Didyk said.
Paramedics soon arrived, and police officer with a fire extinguisher, she said.