The reason for the self-immolation was not immediately clear and the man’s identity was not disclosed. But it occurred in public view, on a central national gathering place, in a city still rattled by a mass shooting last month and a high-speed car chase outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday that ended with a woman being shot dead by police.
The man on the Mall suffered life-threatening injuries and was airlifted to the hospital, said District of Columbia fire department spokesman Tim Wilson.
He was standing by himself in the center portion of the Mall when he emptied the contents of a red gasoline can on himself and set himself on fire moments later, said Katy Scheflen, who witnessed it as she walked across the area. Police say they responded around 4:20 p.m. Friday.
Scheflen said passing joggers took off their shirts in an effort to help douse the flames, and the man was clearly alive as the fire spread. A police department spokesman said he was conscious and breathing at the scene. MedStar Washington Hospital Center tweeted that the man was taken there and he was in critical condition.
“There was not a lot people could do because it was a gasoline fire,” Scheflen said.
She said he may have said something before he acted “but it was nothing intelligible.” She said she did not see him holding any signs before he set himself ablaze and that there was another man with a tripod set up near him but did not mention if he was filming.
Lt. Pamela Smith of the U.S. Park Police, which is investigating along with the D.C. police department, said: “I’m not aware of any signage or any articulation of any causes.”
The D.C. police department has dispatched its violent crimes branch, which responds to cases in which a person suffers serious injury.