Worn out by successive dramas of a political and violent kind, Washington DC emergency services were called tonight to a man who set himself on fire in the middle of the National Mall in the vicinity of numerous federal museums closed by the government shutdown, including the National Gallery.
The man was hospitalized in critical condition after bystanders used the shirts off their backs to tamp down the flames, police and witnesses said.
Rescue crews said they had found a container of inflammable liquid near the spot where he was found. There was no early word on the identity of the individual.
Bystander Katy Scheflen said she was walking along the Mall when she saw a man by himself pick up a can of petrol and empty its contents on his head before setting himself ablaze.
She said passing joggers took off their shirts to help douse the flames.
Ms Scheflen added he might have said something before he acted, "but it was nothing intelligible".
If it turns out to be a self-inflicted ignition, the early speculation was bound to centre on some kind of protest for the now four-day old government shut down that has sent tens of thousands of government workers home without pay for the time being and made national parks inaccessible to visitors including thousands of tourists from abroad.
Lieutenant Pamela Smith of the US Park Police, which is investigating with the DC police department, said: "I'm not aware of any signage or any articulation of any causes."
Last month, the capital of the United States saw a mass shooting at the Navy Yards when a mentally ill man opened fire on civilian workers, killing twelve and injuring several more, before being fatally shot by police. On Thursday, a woman from Connecticut was shot dead after she tried to crash her car through barriers at the White House and later led a dramatic chase through streets in the immediate vicinity of the US Capitol.
Additional reporting by Independent staff