WASHINGTON — As shocked tourists screamed for help, a man committed suicide Monday by immolating himself on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
"I saw a ball of flames on the Capitol steps and thought at first it was a flag-burning demonstration," said Larry Schuster, a reporter who was passing nearby. "Then I saw the shape of a human arm and thought it must be an effigy.
"Then, when I realized it was a human being, I started shouting for the police."
A few other tourists in the area also began shouting for help, but by the time police could put out the flames with fire extinguishers, the man was dead.
Capitol police spokesman Dan Nichols said that the man, whose identity was not known, was burned beyond recognition. Although the Capitol is often a site of demonstrations, the man appeared to have been alone and carried no placard or other notice of a political protest.
"We don't know why he did it. All we could tell was that he was a white male, but the body was too badly burned to identify further," Nichols said.
The incident occurred shortly before 2 p.m. on the West steps of the Capitol, overlooking the Mall stretching to the Washington Monument. The man was alone on the steps at the time, but another witness who saw him from a distance said that he doused himself with liquid from a small container before he set himself on fire.
"He made no sound. He didn't scream. He didn't even whimper. There was just this 'poof,' like the sound you hear when you light kerosene-soaked coals on a barbecue," said Schuster, who writes for a group of medical publications.
"We've had suicides around here before," Nichols said, "but nothing ever like this."