Thursday, October 30, 2008

Self-Immolation at UW

A 61-year-old man poured gasoline over himself and set himself on fire on Thursday afternoon, October 30, 2008, in Red Square, a crowded University of Washington plaza, in an attempt at suicide, local Seattle police told the Associated Press.

The man was taken to a hospital with second- and third-degree burns, said Ralph H. Robinson, assistant campus police chief. The unidentified individual died late on Thursday.

The fire was reported in the early afternoon in Red Square, a brick plaza at the center of campus, said Robinson and city Fire Department spokeswoman Helen Fitzpatrick.

Robinson said witnesses told him, "All of a sudden there was this big flame and a ball of fire."

UW student Jayoung Kim said she initially thought the flames were a joke. People threw clothing and tried to squirt the man with water bottles, she said; one man even took off his jeans and tried to use them to douse the flames.

"Nobody could do anything. We couldn't help," she said.

The square was full of people at the lunch hour, said Bjarne Varnes, a university maintenance worker.

Tom Giardino, a student walking to work near the square, said a crowd gathered as the man was put into the ambulance.

"The guy wasn't part of any sort of organized protest and didn't make any declarations before he started," Giardino said.

After the flames were extinguished, the man appeared to be badly burned and was incoherent when medics arrived, UW student Jacob Maria told KOMO-TV. There was a strong smell of gasoline and a gas can in the man's backpack, he said.

It appeared to be a suicide attempt, Robinson said, adding: "We do not know why he did this. We do not know whether he was a student or staff or what his affiliation was."

The King County medical examiner's office has not identified the man. One report indicates the individual is a former UW staff member.

Self-immolation is suicide by fire, and has historically been used as a form of anti-war protest.

A number of Buddhist monks used self-immolation in protest of the South Vietnamese regimen in the 1960s. Their protests were copied worldwide, including in the USA. On November 2, 1965, Norman Morrison used kerosene to burn himself to death outside The Pentagon as a protest against the Vietnam War. Roger Allen LaPorte did so one week later outside the United Nations headquarters.

The wars in Iraq have resulted in little publicized self-immolations too.

The elder George Bush had sent U.S. forces against Iraqis during the First Gulf War, and his actions were stirring up war protests. Fire suicides soon followed.

Gregory Levey understood the power of the media and symbolism; after all, it was in his genetic makeup. On February 18, 1991, Levey, 30, son of newspaper reporter Bob Levey and stepson of Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman, set himself on fire in protest of the First Gulf War in the university community of Amherst, Massachusetts. Levey identified with Buddhist beliefs and left clear symbols of his intentions at his side, a placard with the word “Peace” on it, and a statue of the Buddha. Three days later, in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts, Raymond Moules followed suit.

Malachi Ritscher was a Chicago musician and anti-war protestor who died by suicide by fire in 2006, as a political protest against the War in Iraq.

The motivation of today's self-immolation in Seattle is unclear, tonight.

October 31, 2008 update.

No identity of the man has been released. Rumors that he was a former professor have been denied and UW will only say he is a former staff member.

"We do not know the motive," UW Police Department spokesman Ralph Robinson said. "Obviously, that's the primary question."

Robinson said there were no planned activities or political events in Red Square before the incident.

Tom Yang, a 21-year-old international studies undergrad at the UW, who was an eyewitness, said there were no protest signs, but said another man at the scene -- partially clothed after having used his own clothing to fight back the flames -- was bowing and praying loudly over the victim.

"I don't know what that was about, but it reminded me of the Vietnam War," Yang said. "We kept asking him to stop, and eventually some people dragged him away."

Red Square was cordoned off with yellow tape and closed for more than an hour by police after the incident.

Police said the man wasn't close to others when he lit himself on fire. No other injuries were reported.

1 comment:

Julia Vinson said...

I am a student at UW. The university sent out an e-mail today that the man was a former university staff employee, but no name was given.