After rescuing his fiancée and two of his children from their blazing apartment Friday morning, Demetrius Johnson headed back into the inferno engulfing the two-family house in Buffalo to save his 3-year-old son.
Johnson found the child, put him in a closet and then collapsed. Firefighters soon arrived and saved the little boy. They could not save Johnson.
That was the story Johnson’s brother and sisters told Friday afternoon after the fire at 90 Humber Ave. that killed Johnson and another man, and severely burned Johnson’s 8-year-old daughter.
“My brother died a hero. We’re all proud of that,” said William Johnson Jr., Demetrius’ brother, as he and other family members stood outside Women & Children’s Hospital. “My brother woke everybody up after the fire broke out. He died doing everything he could do to rescue his family.”
Family members also said that their brother’s fiancée told them that there were smoke detectors in the apartment, but they did not work during the fire.
In addition, William Johnson said there had been an electrical problem in the apartment two or three hours before the fire.
“Tempest (Thomas) said they called the landlord and asked the landlord to fix it,” Johnson said of his brother’s fiancée. “From what she told me, the smoke detectors did not go off … My brother woke up because he smelled smoke.”
Fire investigators continue to look into the fire but have not made any official determinations about the cause or the presence of smoke detectors.
While Johnson and his two sisters, Tamika Johnson and Lequita Hanesworth, said they were heartbroken over their brother’s death, they also were extremely proud of his heroic actions.
“It doesn’t surprise me that he did all that. Those were his kids, and he loved them,” Tamika Johnson said. “I’m just really hurt that he’s gone.”
Demetrius Johnson, 24, already had rescued his fiancée, Thomas; a daughter, Treasure Brighon, 8, who was burned over 90 percent of her body; and his youngest son, Demaris Johnson, 15 months, when the family realized Demetrius Jr. was still inside the apartment, which was fully ablaze, according to family members.
“Tempest told Demetrius, ‘Don’t go back in there, it’s too bad,’ ” William Johnson said, describing what Thomas told him after the fire. “My brother said, ‘I’m not going to let my son die.’ ”
Demetrius broke a window to let out some smoke from the first-floor apartment, and then rushed back inside, looking for his son, William Johnson said.
“Demetrius found him in the living room. It was so bad in there, he put Demetrius Jr. in a closet for safety. Then, my brother collapsed,” he said.
Firefighters who fought their way into the apartment soon after were able to rescue the 3-year-old from the closet, family members said. But the rescue effort was too late to save his father.
“My brother died a hero, that’s all there was to it,” William Johnson said. “He was an angel. He pulled his family out of there, but he couldn’t save himself.”
Daniel Hunley, a brother-in-law of Demetrius Johnson, described him as a loving father.
“He was a good family man, and he died a hero, trying to do the right thing,” Hunley said.
Buffalo Fire Department officials said they are trying to determine the cause of the fire, which also killed a 49-year-old man who lived in an upstairs apartment. The upstairs victim has not been identified.
Family members said Demetrius Johnson was unemployed because of a seizure disorder.
“He had a few problems over the years, some troubles with the law, but he never did any hard time in jail,” William Johnson said of his brother. “But for the most part, he was a good family man, a good person. He loved his kids.”
William Johnson said his family has been touched by tragedy before – in January 2001, when David J. Curry, brother to him and Demetrius, was shot and killed in a home on Shirley Avenue where the family was living.
“Somebody came by at night and shot up our house. David was hit and killed,” William Johnson said.
Buffalo police said at the time that a neighborhood feud may have led to the killing of Curry, who was then 17. No arrests were reported.
“We were told that David was not the intended victim,” William Johnson said.
Demetrius Johnson attended Riverside High School but dropped out after his junior year.
His brother said Demetrius’ favorite activities were “barbecues, picnics, getting together with family, especially his kids.”
“He was an outgoing person who was loved by his family,” William Johnson said.
The family also mentioned an incident they had heard about several months ago, in which Demetrius Johnson entered another burning East Side home trying to save an elderly woman.
“That house was on fire, and Demetrius went in looking for her. He searched the whole inside of the house, but then he found out she was out having lunch somewhere,” William Johnson said.
Family members said they did not know the previous fire incident occurred.