The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Outside the Supreme Court, a life of purpose and pain ends in flames

Wynn Bruce, whose life was shaped by a devastating car accident and Buddhism, set himself on fire on Earth Day in what his father believes was a climate change protest

Wynn Bruce, 50, of Boulder, Colo., died after setting himself on fire outside the Supreme Court on April 22, in an apparent climate protest action. (Family photo)
12 min

He didn’t scream.

He didn’t run toward the nearby fountain outside the Supreme Court. He didn’t cry out in pain. The fire consuming Wynn Bruce’s body raged for 60 seconds Friday before it was extinguished by police, and he remained still, sitting upright on the court’s famous marble plaza, his legs stretched in front of him.

The only sounds photographer Renée C. Gage said she heard came from someone yelling “fire,” the shouts of “It’s a man! It’s a man!” and the wail of sirens as officers tried to scoop fountain water into narrow orange cones to douse the flames.

Only after the fire was extinguished, a video posted on social media shows, did he howl in agony.

“I don’t know if his body went into shock, but it was silent,” said Gage, 46, who captured photos of the gruesome scene and described what she witnessed in an interview with The Washington Post. “Can you imagine being on fire and not screaming?”

Colorado man dies after setting himself on fire at Supreme Court

It’s still not exactly clear what drove Bruce — whose life was shaped by a devastating car accident and, later, inspired by his dedication to Buddhism — to set himself on fire.

His father, as well as others who knew the 50-year-old from Boulder, Colo., suggested that Bruce’s self-immolation, which coincided with Earth Day, was a protest of climate change.

“I agree with the belief that this was a fearless act of compassion about his concern for the environment,” said Douglas Bruce, 78, who is a retired administrator at Normandale Community College outside Minneapolis.

But he also acknowledged that his son had made an earlier attempt at self-immolation — in 2017 in front of the World Trade Center.

He was quickly stopped by other people before suffering any burns, Douglas Bruce said.

Summoned by law enforcement authorities, Douglas flew from Minnesota to New York, where Wynn was hospitalized. He accompanied his son back to Boulder, where he set him up with psychological support services. Wynn wouldn’t tell his father why he had tried to burn himself.

“It was the worst way I could think of ending your life,” said Douglas, who couldn’t find a way to get his son to open up about it.

Douglas said that he spoke to Wynn about three or four days before his death and that he seemed fine. They had a fairly ordinary conversation, he said, and Wynn gave no indication about a new plan to kill himself.

Wynn was his only child, he said, and he was deeply shaken by the nature of his death.

Still, he said: “Everybody gets to decide for themselves about how their end of life is going to take place. I honor that. I honor that. I respect him for it.”

A few weeks before his final act, Bruce edited a Facebook comment on a 2021 post sharing a link to an online course about climate change. He included “4/22/2022,” the date of what would be his self-immolation, next to a fire emoji.

There have been others who have set themselves on fire in the nation’s capital.

The most famous was Norman R. Morrison, a Quaker from Baltimore who burned himself outside the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War.

In 2018, David Buckel, a gay rights lawyer, set himself on fire in Brooklyn to protest climate change.

No one who spoke to The Post said they knew how Bruce ended up in front of the Supreme Court just before 6:30 p.m. Friday.

Supreme Court Police, Capitol Police and D.C. police all responded, and a helicopter landed on the 252-foot oval plaza to take Bruce to a hospital, where he died the next day from his injuries.

As news spread about Bruce’s last moments, some people reacted with pity and mockery, arguing on social media that anyone driven to such an extreme must be struggling with their mental health. But others, while horrified and saddened, wrote that they understood his despair about the planet’s future and described his act as selfless.

If the world ignores Bruce’s death and disregards the warnings from scientists about the actions needed to curb the world’s warming, they argued, millions more people will die by fire.

“I don’t think you can look at Wynn’s act and see just one thing,” said Morgan Stanfield, 48, who became friends with Bruce through Boulder’s contact improvisational dance community. “A person can be suffering profoundly and also be enormously courageous. They can be doing something to ease their own pain, and they can be doing something at the same time that they believe is going to genuinely change the world in a profound way. And for me, that is the only way that I can see this and have it make any sense at all.”

‘So much to give’

His family nearly lost Wynn Bruce three decades ago — in a car crash that left him critically injured at 18 and derailed his plans to join the military.

Before that, he excelled at cross-country, earning a spot on his varsity high school team as a sophomore and eventually becoming co-captain.

He was so passionate about running that once, when Holly Bruce, Wynn’s stepmother, was tucking him into bed, his sheets were pulled all the way to his neck.

When she investigated why, she saw that he was already dressed to get up in the morning.

“He was lying there with shorts and T-shirt on, and a jacket — plus his running shoes,” she said.

He grew up in Minnesota, where the beauty of Lake Superior sparked his love of nature, his father said.

One of Douglas Bruce’s favorite memories of his son was when he was about 10, and they canoed the Boundary Waters in northeast Minnesota, near the Canadian border.

“We were portaging, and Wynn said to me, ‘I can’t make it,’ ” he recalled. “So, I looked at him and said, ‘You have to.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because I can’t make it without you.’ Of course, we made it. That night, at the campfire, that was special. We’d made it together.”

In the late 1980s, Wynn moved to Florida to live with his mother.

He went to Hernando High School in Brooksville, just north of Tampa. He was involved in the science club and dressed up in funny costumes with other students for homecoming week, his choice being a lengthy skirt to impersonate “Little Debbie” from the snack cake brand.

After graduation in 1989, he was preparing to join the Air Force. Then, just days before he was set to leave, a deadly accident shattered his plans for the future.

Bruce and a friend were heading out to pick up dates, according to a St. Petersburg Times article, on Oct. 20, 1989, when the car suddenly veered off the road.

The 1978 Oldsmobile crashed into a tree, killing the driver and severely injuring Bruce, who was flown by helicopter to Tampa General Hospital.

It was a “significant accident, and it took him a long time to recover,” Douglas Bruce said.

His wounds were so severe that he could not serve in the Air Force.

His ambitions eventually shifted to photojournalism, said Pauli Driver-Smith, who tutored him at a Boulder community college about a decade ago.

Bruce told her that he had suffered a traumatic brain injury in the car accident. As a result, he couldn’t drive a car and struggled to learn new skills quickly.

He wanted to be more independent, Driver-Smith said, but was relying on financial help from his family. At one point, he worked at a natural food grocery store. He also started his own studio, Bright and True Photography.

“I specialize in candid, documentary style, photos of families and young children,” he wrote on LinkedIn.

“He was trying to do something meaningful. He said his TBI had affected him his whole life,” said Driver-Smith, who called Bruce’s photographs beautiful.

He wanted to become a photojournalist, she said, but knew he would struggle to cover breaking news without being able to drive.

“His only real regret in life was that he couldn’t be as productive as he’d wanted to be. He didn’t feel like he could be a good husband or have a good career,” she said. “He had so much passion and so much to give.”

‘Taking in their suffering’

In Boulder — where Bruce wrote on Facebook that he had lived since 2000 — he found a new community, bonding with people who practiced Buddhism and understood his deep commitment to the Shambhala movement.

He enjoyed contact improvisational dance classes, a nonrhythmic spontaneous form of movement that Bruce’s friends said is popular among Buddhists in Boulder.

Gregg Eisenberg, 58, who danced with Bruce, recounted seeing him among a crowd of 200 people that functioned as a “group meditation.”

“The twinkle in his eye said a lot,” Eisenberg said. “And he tried to connect with the other people on the dance floor in a way that was meaningful.”

Stanfield said Bruce enjoyed hiking the Mount Sanitas Trail, with summit views of Boulder, the foothills and Indian Peaks mountains. Once he reached the top, she said, he would stop and meditate.

“The practices that Wynn did were things like meditation on wishing well being for others and imagining taking in their suffering into himself and breathing out light and happiness toward them,” Stanfield said. She was struck by his “sweetness and guilelessness and intelligence.”

Bruce regularly attended retreats at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center, just outside Boulder, and volunteered for trail-clearing exercises, said Jesse Dow, the organization’s new executive director, who hadn’t met Bruce.

In a statement released Monday, the center said that none of the Buddhist teachers in the Boulder area knew of Bruce’s plans to set himself on fire and that if they had, “we would have stopped him in any way possible.”

“We have never talked about self-immolation, and we do not think self-immolation is a climate action,” the statement read. “Nevertheless, given the dire state of the planet and worsening climate crisis, we understand why someone might do that.”

At COP26, countries will be asked to cut emissions to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Climate reporter Sarah Kaplan explains why that's unlikely. (Video: Casey Silvestri/The Washington Post)

Many climate scientists fear catastrophic consequences if global warming continues to accelerate. The Greenland ice sheet could collapse, and sea levels could rise more than six feet. They predict more climate-fed fires, deadly heat waves and devastating floods.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in late February in a significant environmental case that could limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to curb carbon pollution at a time when scientists warn that nations must severely cut emissions to avoid these disasters.

It’s easy to see the climate crisis up close when living in Colorado, said Stephen Bross, 54, who talked with Bruce about their shared concern about wildfires, fracking and other environmental issues. In December, Colorado experienced the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history that burned through hundreds of homes.

Officials on Dec. 31 said it was a "miracle" that no deaths were reported in an unprecedented wildfire that moved at breakneck speeds across Colorado. (Video: Reuters)

Bruce felt strongly about these issues, Bross said, but never sounded “extremist.”

Bross last saw Bruce on April 14, eight days before his death, at an Easter foot-washing ceremony that Bross organized at his home, honoring the biblical account of what Jesus did for his disciples.

Ahead of the gathering, Bruce emailed Bross to ask: “May I wash your feet? Serious request — in all humility.” In retrospect, Bross feels like this was Bruce’s way of showing him gratitude.

“He wasn’t radical in any way, and he just had a huge heart. And I received [the self-immolation] as an act of compassion and a desire for his life to go to something that he really cared about, which was to bring attention to this climate issue.” Stanfield compared Bruce’s act to those of the Vietnamese monks who fatally set themselves on fire to protest the Vietnam War.

She referenced a 1965 letter that Thich Nhat Hanh, perhaps the world’s most renowned Buddhist monk after the Dalai Lama, addressed to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“The press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest,” Thich Nhat Hanh wrote of the monks in his letter to the civil rights leader. “... To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with utmost courage, frankness, determination, and sincerity.”

Bruce also admired Thich Nhat Hanh, who died in January at 95. He commemorated him in a Facebook post, thanking him for “sharing compassion.”

Later, he commented on his own post, adding a quote he attributed to Thich Nhat Hanh:

“The most important thing, in response to climate change, is to be willing to hear the sound of the earth’s tears through our own bodies.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.