“When I saw the man burning, the flames were so massive that I could only see his facial expression (...) Before I could do anything, the burning young man ran from the wall under the National Museum to the railing near my car, and jumped over the railing on the edge of the pavement. Then he rushed past my car and a MB 1000 car, which was on my left, into the road and disappeared behind a tram heading from the lower part of Wenceslas Square to the museum.”
Testimony of Josef Kříž, a witness to Palach’s protest, 17 January 1969
Jan Palach’s shocking protest was seen by many witnesses, whose testimonies are recorded in an investigation file of the Czechoslovak police (Veřejná Bezpečnost). Thanks to these testimonies, an exact reconstruction of the protest is possible. The surroundings of the place looked different in January 1969 than they do today. The main National Museum building was an integral part of Wenceslas Square – it was not separated by the main highway. Several tram lines led through the square; one of the stations was right next to the St Wenceslas statue.
Jan Palach took off his coat near the fountain railing and took a bottle labelled “Ether” out of his briefcase. He opened it with a knife and smelled it. Near the fountain, he then poured the petrol over himself and set himself on fire. He jumped over the railing and ran between the parked cars towards the St Wenceslas statue. He was almost run over by a passing tram. Probably because of that, he turned towards the “Food Shop” (Dům potravin) where he fell on the road, and some random witnesses put him out with their coats. At Jan Palach’s request, they opened the briefcase left near the fountain and read his letter. After a few minutes, a Ministry of the Interior ambulance just happened to being passing by and stopped at the scene.
The burned young man, still conscious, was first rushed to the hospital on Charles Square. However, he was not admitted to this hospital, and the ambulance was sent to Legerova Street, where the plastic surgery department and burn treatment centre of the Vinohrady Hospital was located at the time. He was admitted at 2:45 p.m. When he was being transported to his room in the hospital, he pointed out to the nurses that he was not a suicide case and that he had set himself on fire in protest - similar to the Buddhists in Vietnam.
A big crowd gathered at the scene of Palach’s act. Firemen came soon, as well as Czech police investigators who interrogated the first witnesses and took photos. Near the fountain, they found seven fragments of the bottle and the charred plastic container. They also found two A4 pieces of paper on which a witness of Palach’s protest wrote: “Here a 20-year-old student immolated himself”. Police officers also confiscated Palach’s personal belongings, among them, a letter in which he had explained his act. On the basis of this letter, the investigators decided to launch criminal proceedings for engagement in the crime of suicide. Only two hours after Palach’s act, the Czechoslovak News Agency published a short news story about the self-immolation of a Faculty of Arts student. In this report, only Palach’s initials were mentioned.