Detroit firefighters helping victims during holidays

George Hunter
The Detroit News

A social media “fire challenge” mishap and an armed robbery that ended in flames have devastated two Detroit families, prompting arson investigators to try to brighten their holidays with shopping sprees for the children involved.

Each year, the Detroit Fire Arson Division adopts a family that’s experiencing a fire-related hardship to help them during the holidays, but Lt. James Hill-Harris said after his unit had already chosen one family, they became aware of another situation that, he said, couldn’t be ignored.

The unit’s first choice in the annual “Adopt a Family” program was the family of 9-year-old Teosha Nickerson, who on April 23 was severely burned when she and her cousin did the “fire challenge,” a YouTube trend in which people put alcohol on their hands and set them on fire.

“This happened at her cousin’s house,” Hill-Harris aid. “They were doing a science experiment for school, which was supervised by the cousin’s mother. After the experiment, they put the materials away, and the mother went to lay down.”

When the woman left the room, Hill-Harris said the kids pulled out the ingredients for the experiment and tried to take the “fire challenge.”

“Kids are pouring alcohol on their hands and setting them on fire, and putting it on YouTube,” Hill-Harris said. “It makes a pretty flame, and because the fire is above the hand, they don’t get burned — if everything works out how they hope. But a lot of times it doesn’t, which is what happened here.”

Teosha suffered second- and third-degree burns on her face, arms, chest and back, requiring multiple surgeries and skin grafts, said her mother, Roshawn Peacock.

“She’s doing OK, but there are some days when she doesn’t want to go to school,” Peacock said. “She says she feels like the kids are staring at her.

“It’s been hard with all the surgeries. She’s in and out of the hospital, and she doesn’t want to keep going through that, and I don’t want her to either. We’ve been through so much this year.”

After adopting Teosha’s family, Hill-Harris said his unit found out about another Detroit family that had a fire-related tragedy on Nov. 28, 2016. The family lost their possessions when two gunmen broke into their home at about 11 p.m. and held them hostage before setting the flat on fire with two small children inside.

“I had just come home from work,” said Precious Butler, 23. “I was pregnant with my daughter and laid down on the floor. My boyfriend came into the house from working on a car ... and two men somehow got in and tied him up with an orange extension cord.”

The gunmen ascended the stairs to Butler’s upper flat, she said. “I was laying on one of the kids’ covers, and one of them pointed a gun at my face and told me to put the cover over my head,” she said.

The men ransacked her house while her two children, son Ronald, 4, and daughter Raei’Gynn, 2, were in the bedroom.

“I was scared for my kids,” she said. “The men were going through the house, packing up everything: Our XBox, the games, the TV, our clothes and shoes. They asked if we had any weapons and one of them said ‘if we find any weapons, those kids are dead.’”

Someone called police and one of the robbers was able to slip away, Butler said. “He left his buddy there to deal with the cops,” she said.

Butler said the second man set fire to the flat in an attempt to escape. “The officer had told me to leave the house,” she said. “I was in the squad car when I read on the computer ‘suspect has infant in hand.’ That’s when I knew he was using one of my kids as a shield.”

Butler said she later learned the man initially grabbed her daughter, and then held her son under a blanket. “He threw a cover over his head so if the police shot, they’d shoot him,” Butler said.

Officers were able to arrest the man without the boy being hurt, Butler said. But by then, the flat was engulfed in flames.

“They couldn’t find my daughter at first, and she was close to dying from smoke inhalation,” she said. “They finally found her and got her to the hospital. She was in critical condition, but she made it through.”

While Butler and her children survived the ordeal, she said they lost everything in the fire.

“(The robbers) got all our stuff together like they were going to steal it, but then they burned it all up, so what was the point?” she said. “Now, I’m just trying to get back on my feet, but it’s hard.”

Police recently arrested the second suspect who’d fled to California, Butler said.

Butler said her daughter is too young to recall the incident, but she said her son still relives it.

“He still talks about it,” she said. “He remembers two guys with a big gun, and says ‘they bumped my head against the wall.”

Hill-Harris started the Adopt a Family program in 2014 to help the family of a man who died when he ran into a burning house to save his children, who, unbeknownst to him, had already escaped.

“Whenever there are critical injuries involved in a fire, we investigate,” Hill-Harris said. “We got to know this family, and it happened so close to the holidays, we wanted to give them a good Christmas. That’s how it started, and we do it every year now.

“We don’t just give the families money; we put up Christmas trees at the houses, and take them on shopping sprees,” Hill said. “It’s not just a ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ thing. “I don’t know how it’s going to go this year, but we’re hoping we can raise enough money so we can take the kids shopping and let them pick out what they want.

“... What happens to these families is so heartbreaking; maybe we can make things a little better for them.”

Tax-deductible donations are being handled by the Detroit Public Safety Foundation. Money may be dropped off at the foundation’s offices in Suite 547 in the Detroit Police Public Safety Headquarters, 1301 Third near Michigan Ave.; or donations are accepted online at

(313) 222-2134

Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN