WASHINGTON – Ron Chilson III, a 19-year-old Eagle Scout from Penn Yan, New York, said he was just doing a good deed when he extinguished a fire in a girl’s hair with his hand to save the teen from serious harm on Inauguration Day.
Boy Scouts of America taught him to “do a good turn daily, which is what I was trying to do by going to the protest,” Chilson said. “That was what I was taught when I was growing up.”
Chilson, who continues to support President Donald Trump, said he, joined by other supporters en route to the parade, talked to some of the protesters to find out the reasoning.
The group chanted the new president’s last name and “Build that wall!”
Protester Kate Napier, age 21, and Trump supporter Mackenzie Ullom began to argue. Chilson said he and Napier argued also.
Prior to the incident, Napier said, “I think it’s important for us to not be complacent because neutrality sides with the oppressor.”
Ullom asked her friend Peggy O’Neil, 17, to take a picture of her in front of the protesters. While Ullom was taking a picture of O’Neil, a protester used a lighter to set O’Neil’s hair on fire. Chilson was in the middle of taking a video of himself for SnapChat when he smelled smoke. He looked over and saw the fire. He exclaimed some expletives and hit O’Neil repeatedly to extinguish the fire.
Immediately, O’Neil turned around to look at Chilson.
“It scared the living daylights out of me,” Chilson said, remembering O’Neil’s facial expression.
Chilson said O’Neil seemed unaware she was on fire.
“She turned around and looked like she was going to punch me in the face,” Chilson said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, sorry… your hair was on fire.’”
He said he had put out several fires as an entomology student and as a Boy Scout. Normally, he would stomp on the fire with his foot.
It was “human instincts, caring for one another,” Chilson said. “I didn’t care if I got hurt as long as she was OK. Because that’s more important than my hand.”
As O’Neil and Ullom walked away, Chilson looked at the fragments of burned hair in his hand. He brushed his hand on his shirt to try to get the hair off, but it wouldn’t come off right away
“It just felt like someone took Pop Rocks… took that and just put it on my hand,” Chilson said. “It didn’t burn or anything.”
O’Neil and Ullom left the protest once they found out about the fire, Ullom said. O’Neil said although they had been responding to the protesters, the fire changed her mind.
“It wasn’t even worth it to argue anymore,” O’Neil said.
Next, Chilson talked to protesters to find out more about what happened.
A few witnesses caught the incident on video.
Chilson said he talked to the girl who, in witness Daniel Ledon’s video, was standing between the camera and the girl whom the video appears to show with a lighter, first.
“I said, ‘Can I talk to you?’” he recalled saying to a girl in a yellow sweater.
“’I don’t have much to say to you,’” he paraphrased, adding he believed that was because he is a Trump supporter.
He said he talked to the girl who he alleges set the fire, but did not reach that conclusion until he watched the video.
“I didn’t see her reach out and light her on fire,” he said. “I don’t think anyone did at the time.”
He said he asked the girl, who was wearing a blue and white hat in the video, her reason for protesting.
“Because we want to voice our opinion … and we want to make a difference,” Chilson recalled her saying, paraphrasing.
He asked her about her choice to protest.
“‘Is this the best way to do it?’” he asked, trying to resolve the problem. “‘Do you want to make a positive difference? How are we supposed to come together as a whole?’”
He said she said she was protesting to express her freedom of speech and “try to make a change.”
Chilson later said he wishes he could remember her name, but it wouldn’t come.
Next, Chilson approached O’Neil.
“I was like ‘Hey, I’m glad you’re okay,’” he said. “She said, ‘Thanks for putting it out.’”
Becky O’Neil, O’Neil’s mother, said if she could talk to Chilson, she would thank him.
“Thank you so much,” she would have said. “It could have been so much worse had he not responded quickly.”
“I’m just really glad he was there so that there was no serious damage done,” she added.
Chilson said if O’Neil had had hairspray in her hair, the results would have been worse.
“(If) it had gone up a lot quicker … she would have been maimed for the rest of her life,” he said.
He said he remembers his high school classmate who was injured when playing with fire.
“I’ve seen the aftermath; he had scars all over him,” Chilson said.
The classmate poured gasoline on a campfire, but then the stream of gasoline caught on fire and “exploded.”
Chilson said he especially enjoyed being the one to light the campfire when he camped as a Boy Scout.
Photography hobbyist Ledon, age 23, of Richmond had been trying to watch the parade when he saw the incident and took a video of it. He said he wants police to find the culprit, so he posted the video on YouTube. He couldn’t say for sure which side started the argument between Ullom and Napier.
“I think (it) got a domino effect,” Ledon said. “One person who started saying nasty things to another person … some people were thinking a bit harsher than others – on both sides.
“That’s part of the reason why you couldn’t tell at the moment who it was with the fire,” Ledon said.
Other protests later in the day were more violent.
Ledon captured some of the damage with his camera, including a flaming garbage can and a broken liquor store window.
“What’s the point of all this vandalism and all this violence if you’re just trying to convey a message?” he asked. “If the message you are trying to convey is peace, why are you committing acts of violence in trying to convey that message?”