PORTLAND, Ore. - The first Portland Police officer to arrive on the scene of the man who set himself on fire Wednesday outside the Nicholas Ungar Furs store, accidentally used pepper spray in an attempt to put out the flames instead of a fire extinguisher, officials at the Portland Police Bureau said Thursday.
Police said the officer, who was nearby, saw 26-year-old Daniel Shaull from Kansas on fire, parked her patrol car, went to her trunk and accidentally grabbed pepper spray used for riot control instead of the fire extinguisher.
The canister of pepper spray the officer used is red like many fire extinguishers.
Multiple police sources said the riot-gear-sized spray that they use is very similar in size, appearance and color to the fire extinguishers they carry. They said that any one of them could have made the same mistake in that chaotic moment.
Police said someone else, a motorist who had been driving by, did grab an actual fire extinguisher to help Shaull, but he kept running away.
“They (officer and motorist) attempted to get the young man to roll on the ground to put out the flames,” Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer said. “He kept running away and was uncooperative. Eventually, additional cover units arrived, and they were able to get him on the ground and extinguish the flames.”
Shaull, however, later died at Legacy Emanuel Hospital.
It is not clear if the man was running away because of the effects of the pepper spray.
Sizer said she’s been told by the Portland Fire Bureau that the pepper spray used was water based and was not an accelerant. She said it did not make matters worse but that the use of the spray was regrettable.
“It’s certainly not a mistake of any bad intentions,” Sizer said. “It was an unexpected emergency. It was an officer who observed something opposed to responded to a call for service. So it was extremely unexpected. Unfortunately, the fire extinguisher and can of pepper spray were both located in the trunk, and we understand now, too similar in appearance.”
Police sources said that there is a huge difference between observing an incident and responding to a call of service, especially in a situation as extreme as a man on fire.
She said she feels sorry for Shaull and his family.
“I just truly regret that anyone could find themselves in such a life and death situation that they would take those actions,” she said.
Sizer said there are no plans to discipline the officer. She said the Bureau will review where materials are placed in the trunk and how they are marked to prevent a similar mistake from happening again.
Witnesses said Shaull poured gasoline on himself and then set himself on fire outside the Nicholas Ungar Furs store at Southeast 12th Avenue and Yamhill Street and began screaming: “There are animals dying! Animals dying!”
Daniel Shaull’s father, Warren, said his son wasn’t an animal rights activist but that he had a history of psychological problems. Warren said his son had tried to commit suicide in the past. He said Daniel was smart, sensitive, but frustrated the world wasn’t a better place.
“Because of the way he thinks, maybe he thought that was the only way out. That nothing was ever going to change and there was nothing he could do about it," Warren said.