DELRAY BEACH, Fla. – A man who caught fire during a botched performance Thursday at a pep rally at Atlantic Community High School in Delray Beach is recovering from second-degree burns.
Ricky Charles spoke exclusively to Local 10 News reporter Amy Viteri Friday as he left the hospital, accompanied by his team member, Ashton Cheeks, who he credits with saving his life.
"It's the fast thinking," Charles said. "Most of these people were just sitting there going, 'I'm not touching that fire.'"
"All I saw was him run out and he was lit on fire, and the first thing to do was take the fire out on his arm," Cheeks said.
Charles told reporters at a news conference that he's performed the fire-breathing act hundreds of times in schools throughout South Florida.
Palm Beach County Public Schools superintendent Dr. Robert Avossa said during a news conference Friday morning that fire inside school buildings is against the school district's policy.
Charles suffered burns to his face, arm and leg during the incident. He said he asked high school officials if they wanted the fire breathing as part of the performance, and they said yes.
Charles' company, Inferno's Challenge, was performing at a pep rally inside the gym when he did a fire-breathing trick that led to him catching fire. He said he used Coleman camper oil for the first time instead of lighter fluid, but he didn't practice with it, so he wasn't prepared for the longer burn that led to the fire.
He said he won't be doing that trick with fire anymore. He described what the moment was like in front of a gym full of students.
"I'm lucky," Charles said through tears. "It's like being burned alive and an audience is watching. It happened so fast. (You've) got to thank God for that. I'm just lucky to be here."
Seven students were taken to an area hospital after the fire broke out, and Delray Beach Fire Rescue said some students complained of respiratory difficulty after a fire extinguisher was used to put out the flames.
School officials said they confirmed that the company has performed at four other schools since 2011 and said they are aware of at least two performances that involved pyrotechnics.
"Manatee Elementary's principal confirmed that when Inferno's Challenge appeared during summer camp in 2011, fire was not used at her campus," school district spokeswoman Kathy Burstein said.
But Charles said he's performed his act hundreds of times at schools in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
"I was shocked. I wasn't happy and I was a little confused about who had approved that kind of activity," Avossa said. "To me, it's common sense. You don't bring that kind of activity into a building anywhere, let alone a school and an auditorium or media center or gym filled with children."
School administrators are looking into who approved the Inferno's Challenge act and whether the principal was aware or a part of the approval process.
It's unclear whether any disciplinary action will be taken against school administrators.
Charles is expected to be released from the hospital in the coming days.