Dozens of horrified students and faculty at the Center for Excellence campus in North Charleston watched as a student ran toward the main entrance Wednesday morning, screaming for help, his clothing fully ablaze.
School staffers sprang into action, dousing the fire before firefighters and EMS workers arrived, witnesses said.
The student, identified by school officials as 16-year-old Aaron Williams, remained in critical condition late Wednesday at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, according to Olena Scarborough, the hospital's marketing director.
Authorities still were investigating the incident and would not speculate about how the fire started. Police towed a car away from the school as part of the investigation.
Williams is a junior at Academic Magnet High School, which shares a campus on West Enterprise Street with the Charleston County School of the Arts. The two schools were recently built and have many large windows. They have a combined student body of more than 1,650 students and many of them saw the incident unfold through those windows.
Kurt Taylor, a North Charleston city councilman whose full-time job is serving as Charleston County's deputy administrator, happened to be at Academic Magnet on Wednesday morning, dropping something off for his daughter.
'I heard a commotion and looked outside and saw someone outside the main entrance on fire,' Taylor said. School guidance counselors put the fire out, Taylor said. 'They did a wonderful job, a professional job.'
North Charleston police were called to the campus at 8:20 a.m., said police Capt. Scott Deckard. Charleston County EMS took the boy to Medical University Hospital in 'very critical condition,' according to EMS Director Don Lundy.
The boy was later flown by helicopter to the burn center, which is at Doctors Hospital.
Both schools were placed on administrative lockdown during the incident and a subsequent investigation, according to Elliot Smalley, director of communications for the Charleston County School District. The schools were taken off lockdown shortly after 11:30 a.m.
Parents with children at the schools received an automated phone call with brief details about the incident.
Lisa Herring, the district's executive director of student support services, said a team of counselors was brought to the schools to help.
'We are here to support the administrative staff to help ensure that learning goes on,' Herring said.
Taylor said he was impressed with how well the public safety workers, from the city and the county, and the school district's staff, responded to the incident. He also said the incident itself was a difficult thing for him to witness.
'It's an awful and shocking thing,' he said. 'My heart goes out to the young man and his family and his friends.'
According to several parents with children in one or both of the schools, students who witnessed the incident came home after school in a quiet state of shock, while some students who did not see it were chatty and speculating about what happened.
One student told his parents that very little was accomplished in classes Wednesday, as most students were in stunned silence.
Reach David W. MacDougall at 937-5655. Reach Andy Paras at 937-5589 or at twitter.com/andyparas.