As horrified shoppers watched, a woman doused her body with a fire accelerant, set herself ablaze and then silently walked through a crowded Miami-Dade mall and out the door.
“It was a big fireball,” said John Torres, a shopper who grabbed a fire extinguisher. “It was movie-style stuntman stuff.”
Police identified the woman as 42-year-old Cecilia E. Casals of North Miami.
She suffered third-degree burns over three-quarters of her body and remained in critical condition Friday, officials said.
The woman’s husband said she had been to Jackson Memorial Hospital three times recently for psychiatric help and has a history of mental problems, according to Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS 4.
Her daughter works at the Mall of Americas boutique where the woman set herself on fire, her husband said.
They also have a 4-year-old daughter.
When rescue workers arrived after 3 p.m. Thursday, she was conscious and talking to them, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Lt. Arnold Piedrahita said.
The scene unfolded in the Mall of the Americas, 7795 W. Flagler St., just south of the Dolphin Expressway and west of the Palmetto Expressway.
The woman had been inside the Savage Boutique. Witnesses said she left two dozen red and white roses on the counter. Then, she doused herself with a flammable liquid — authorities could not say what it was — and set herself on fire.
Some onlookers screamed. Others tried to put out the blaze.
The flames shot several feet into the air and encircled the woman, witnesses said. At least a few shoppers, thinking the fire was a hoax, snapped photos of the woman and the efforts to help her.
Jose Morales, 24, was shopping for earrings for his wife at a kiosk in the mall. When he heard the shoppers’ screams, he turned around and saw the woman engulfed in bright yellow flames.
He could feel the heat.
“She was completely on fire,” Morales said. “She wasn’t screaming or saying a word. She wasn’t running. She was just walking.”
Morales called 911.
Moments later, an unidentified person tried to extinguish the fire by pushing the woman to the ground.
When the woman didn’t fall, Santiago Castro, who manages a travel agency in the mall, grabbed a fire extinguisher, pointed it at the woman and pressed the handle. It discharged, but it didn’t douse theflames.
“She looked like a human torch, on fire from head to toe,” Castro said.
Torres, the other man who tried to help, followed with a fire extinguisher and was eventually able to put out the fire. The woman then opened an exit door and walked out to the parking lot, witnesses said.
After the flames were out, the woman continued to walk around in a trance-like state. Her hair and clothing had been burned off. Morales said the woman’s skin was charred and bubbling.
“She wasn’t making eye contact with anyone,” he said. “It was like she was in her own world.”
She was rushed to the Ryder Trauma Center in a medical helicopter. Her injuries were life-threatening, said Miami-Dade Detective Roy Rutland, a police spokesman.
The Miami-Dade Police Department’s arson unit was investigating Thursday night.
The three people who tried to help the woman were treated for minor injuries, fire rescue officials said.
Committing suicide by fire is known as self-immolation. The act is often associated with political protest, though that is not always the case.
In June, a man in Brandon, Fla., tried to kill himself by lighting himself on fire. The 67-year old-man was taken to a Tampa hospital for treatment. He survived.
That’s a good reason to stay out of shopping centers right there. Here I thought that people were staying away because of the economy, but maybe it’s really because they are afraid of blazing shoppers. What a horrific thing to happen, and how that woman could have silently burned is beyond me.