South Florida

Fire-Breather Burned at Pep Rally ‘Lucky to Be Here'

Ricky Charles, 52, suffered second-degree burns and said this was his first accident after performing the trick for 35 years

A fire-breather who accidentally set himself ablaze during a South Florida high school pep rally said Friday he's lucky to be alive but plans to continue his shows.

Ricky Charles, 52, suffered second-degree burns to his face, arm and thigh, as well as a minor smoke inhalation injury, his doctors said. Thursday's accident unfolded before hundreds of students in Atlantic High School's gym. Footage of the flames was shown on national TV and viewed by thousands online.

Charles said this was his first accident after performing the trick for 35 years, including 200 to 300 performances annually at schools.

"Being burned alive and an audience is watching. It happened so fast," Charles told a Friday news conference at Delray Medical Center, his face darkened and covered in salve. "I'm just lucky to be here."

Dr. Jean Farber said she expects Charles to be released from the hospital Friday or Saturday. She said his wounds will heal in a few weeks.

Seven students were briefly hospitalized after breathing fire extinguisher dust. Their injuries weren't serious.

Palm Beach County Schools spokeswoman Kathy Burstein said Friday it is against district rules to have indoor pyrotechnics.

Superintendent Robert Avossa said common sense should have prevailed.

"When you put fire in a building, this is a problem," he said.

An investigation is ongoing and no employees have been disciplined yet. Burstein said Charles had performed at four Palm Beach schools in the last five years, receiving $1,600 total.

Charles blamed himself for the accident, saying he was using a different kind of liquid fuel for the first time. He apologized to the school.

"My mistake, my fault. I should have practiced," he said.

The accident happened at the end of the performance, which featured people jumping on trampolines to make slam dunks. Charles said he holds the fuel in his mouth, then spits a stream through a torch to make it shoot out.

But this time, it blew back into his face unexpectedly. That caused him to spill the fluid that remained in his mouth onto his clothing, which ignited.

"Boom," he said.

He started ripping off clothes and rolling on the floor. While he was only on fire for a few seconds before being extinguished, he said it felt like minutes.

Still, he plans to keep doing the show.

"This is what I do — I love doing this. When this heals up, I will find a way to go back out there. If I have to put on a face, a clown face, whatever," Charles said. "I look like crap, but I will be back."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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