A passerby runs to assist others in putting out the gasoline fire engulfing a man in Red Square yesterday around 1 p.m. Witnesses used whatever clothing they had to blanket and put out the fire.
The melted remains of a gas can and burned clothing lie on the ground in front of an ambulance responding to the incident on Red Square yesterday. The man later died at Harborview Medical Center.
Like most students on most days, senior Rose Smith was walking through Red Square yesterday, talking on her cell phone.
She was near Kane Hall when a flame from across the square caught her attention.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, someone’s shoes are on fire,’” she said. “All of a sudden there was this explosion that was like a mushroom cloud.”
As the flames grew, Smith said, more people rushed toward them, trying to put them out. It was only then that she realized it was a man on fire.
“I rushed forward,” she said. “I had a water bottle in my backpack and I used that. I just threw it.”
The man, a 61-year-old former UW employee, had lit himself on fire, said Ralph Robinson, assistant chief of field operations for the UWPD. No other people were injured. The man’s name has not yet been released.
He was rushed to Harborview Medical Center at about 1:30 p.m. and died later yesterday afternoon. His motive, at press time, was unknown.
For the students at the scene, the moments before the police arrived were surreal.
“It seemed like an eternity [before they arrived],” said sophomore Omar Shaukat, who saw the flames from the flag pole near Memorial Lane. He ran to the scene as well.
“People were grabbing whatever they had to put the fire out,” he said. “One guy in particular was only down to his boxers ... it was almost heroic.”
Shaukat didn’t believe that it was a body burning until the flame was extinguished.
“It kind of hit me,” he said. “You never expect it to happen in the heart of the University campus.”
One student, who had taken off all of his clothes except for his underwear, was kneeling on a bench near the man, Smith said. He had his arms raised, and he started praying.
“I was just in shock,” Smith said. “My heart sank, and the pit of my stomach was heavy. I thought he was dead at first, and I thought ‘I just saw someone burn to death’.”
Junior Joe Chang was walking up the steps near By George when he saw the flames. As he rushed to the body, he began dialing 911.
“I was shocked and I couldn’t think straight, he said. “My other friend was there, and she was in shock and started crying.”
Smith said the man started to gain consciousness as they waited for the police.
“When he started moaning, I was just hoping that he’d stay alive for the ambulance,” she said.
Justin Norman, a UW alumnus, documented the scene with his camera. He was walking from the Quad to get lunch when he saw “a raging inferno.”
“It erupted and some people ran away, [but] instantly people ran back to the scene,” he said.
UW spokesman Norm Arkans said the student response was amazing.
“Obviously a troubled individual took his own life, and we have to be sensitive to that,” he said. “But I think [the student response] is a terrific story to tell ... I just think you’re an amazing generation, and it doesn’t surprise me.”
Norman said he wasn’t surprised either.
“I’ve seen some things, people going above and beyond,” he said. “People are good people, and they help other people.”
Reach reporter Arla Shephard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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