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'Unbelievable' to wake up to: Mother grieves loss of 2 sons after Christmas Day fire

Sarah Rahal Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Correction: This story was corrected to say that the house that caught fire was in the 20000 block of Helen Street in Detroit.

Detroit — Christmas at Demika Pinson's house was shaping up to be a memorable one for her children.

The youngsters were so eager for their gifts, Pinson allowed them to open up one apiece before dawn at the Christmas tree downstairs, then urged the five to return to bed so they could be rested to open more presents brought from relatives later in the morning.

Damarion Wheeler

Three did so. But two, De'Lon Wheeler, 7, and Damarion Wheeler, 6, "fell asleep by the tree because they were so excited about getting up," Pinson said.

Both died after a fire ravaged their two-story east side home shortly before 9 a.m. Their siblings were also hospitalized and also face a long recovery.

At the end of what was supposed to be a happy holiday, Pinson was homeless, still smelling smoke in her hair and struggling to grasp her loss.

"It's unbelievable this is something to wake up to on Christmas," she told The Detroit News after her release from the hospital on Friday night. "It’s just tragic."

Fire officials are working to determine the cause of the blaze, which they said appeared to be accidental.

De’Lon Wheeler

"It could have been electrical, Christmas tree or kids playing with matches, but it's not suspicious," said Deputy Fire Commissioner Dave Fornell.

Detroit firefighters responded to a call Friday at 8:48 a.m. in the 20000 block of Helen Street. When they arrived, they saw heavy fire coming out of the windows of the house, Fornell said.

Pinson had already jumped out of a second-floor window with her 2-year-old daughter in her arms. They did not appear to be injured and were hospitalized as a precaution, Fornell said.

Two other children also made it out of the home, an 8-year-old girl with third-degree burns on her hands and face, and a 10-year-old boy who suffered smoke inhalation. They were on the first floor and made their way out by themselves.

Pinson's sixth child, an 11-month-old, was not home at the time, she said.

When firefighters entered the home, they found the bodies of the two young boys in the front room. A Christmas tree was found inside the white-trimmed home where the children gathered on Christmas morning. 

"As we knocked the fire down, the woman told us two more children were inside," Fornell said. "We did a search and discovered ... males in the front room." 

Firefighters at the scene of a fire in a house in the 20000 block of Helen Ave. in Detroit, Michigan  on Friday, December 25, 2020.

Pinson said she had woken up in her room on the second floor having breathing issues, feeling dizzy and noticed what appeared to be smoke when she stepped outside near the top stairs. "I said, 'Something is not right,' " she recalled.

Within seconds, Pinson grabbed her 2-year-old daughter, Di'Yoir, and called out to the other children still upstairs, Darius Jr., 10, and Delilah, 8, yelling that they had to escape.

Pinson said she saw smoke "everywhere" and decided to jump to safety from the upper level with her 2-year-old in her arms, but the other two children opted to find another way when they saw her slipping.

Once they were out, Pinson saw De'Lon and Damarion were not. She noticed flames inside while trying to shatter the front window closest to them, hurting her hands in the process.

Fire at a house in the 20000 block of Helen Ave. takes two boys lives in Detroit, Michigan  on December 25, 2020.

The oldest children were listed in critical condition at Children's Hospital of Michigan late Friday and could remain there for several weeks, Pinson said doctors told her.

Their father, Darius Wheeler Sr., kept a vigil at his daughter's bedside, according to a video he posted on Facebook.

"This is the worst Christmas present anyone could have," he said.

Pinson was released from Detroit Receiving Hospital on Friday evening. She said she learned she tested positive for COVID-19 and could not return to visit her hospitalized children.

"I can't be there for my kids, and that’s what hurts the most," she said while staying with relatives.

Pinson, who has not been working since the pandemic started, said she was unsure what sparked the blaze at the home that her family moved into last February.

"I wasn't cooking or (anything)," she said. "My microwave was unplugged. It was accidental."

The family has started a GoFundMe campaign to help cover funeral and other costs as Pinson and family members deal with their grief.

A probe of the fire will continue, Fornell said. The home did not appear to have central heating and authorities found several space heaters, but "that is not necessarily the cause" of the blaze, he said. 

Authorities will determine the cause after "a very long, painstaking investigation," he said.

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_