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Tragic fire that killed ‘superhero’ dad ends family’s dream of a better life

Tempest Thomas thought she finally had found a nice home for her family.

The landlord at her previous apartment had suggested it to her after she told him she wanted to move.

The lower floor of a double, it was on the corner of Humber and Litchfield avenues, three blocks down a tree-lined street from Erie County Medical Center.

The house was built in 1920 and looked like it was still in great shape. Three bedrooms. A fenced-in yard with a playhouse. Wooden beams on the ceiling. A built-in dishwasher. A laundry chute. Chandeliers.

“It was beautiful,” Thomas said.

Thomas loved the apartment so much, she already was dreaming of the day that she, her fiancé, their three children and the baby they were expecting in the summer would be able to take over the whole house. Thomas had never lived in a home like this before, and she was tired of all the rundown apartments they’d been living in.

“I thought it meant the end of our moves,” she said.

Instead, the house at 90 Humber Ave. brought Thomas and her family more anguish than they ever could have imagined.

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Less than two weeks after Thomas and Demetrius Johnson and their children moved in, a devastating fire ripped through the house. Johnson died in the Feb. 19 fire, as did an upstairs neighbor, Juan Montanez.

Treasure Brighon, Thomas’ 8-year-old daughter, was severely burned and is still fighting for her life. Thomas and the other two children – DeMetrius Jr., 3, and DeMeriuse, 1, survived.

Now Thomas is going back and forth between the pediatric burn center at Shriners Hospital in Cincinnati, where Treasure is undergoing treatment, and Buffalo, where her little boys are being looked after by their paternal grandmother.

A month after the fire, Thomas shared the story of the man she credits with saving her and her children and giving his life in doing so.

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Thomas and Johnson met about six years ago, when she was walking on Genesee Street to her sister’s place on Kilfhoffer Street. Johnson saw Thomas and asked for her number.

“Meech,” as people call Johnson, claimed he was 22, but really he was just 18. Thomas was 24 at the time.

She balked at first, but he was charming and she soon gave in. He called the next day.

Thomas related to Johnson. They both faced difficult times growing up. She was raised by her grandmother and didn’t finish high school. She got her GED through the Response to Love Center at St. Adalbert’s on the East Side. She was raising a daughter, Treasure, on her own.

Johnson’s older brother had been killed in front of him. He had just gotten out of a juvenile detention facility when they met. Johnson’s father, who he was close to, had died while he was in the facility, and Thomas’ grandmother had recently died also.

They found out his father and her grandmother were buried within arm’s reach of each other.

Johnson moved in with Thomas and treated Treasure, who was 2 at the time, like she was his own child. She called him “Big Homie.”

The couple had two more children together, DeMetrius Jr., who they called “Little Meech” and “Fatman,” and DeMeriuse, nicknamed “Little Boonie Boonie.”

Thomas supported the family with the disability money she received. Johnson helped make ends meet by doing work on houses for landlords. He picked up Treasure from the school bus and baby-sat the children when Thomas was working.

Johnson liked to give money to the poor and he helped people anyway he could, Thomas said.

Two months before the fire, Johnson and Thomas were walking on Rother Avenue when they noticed smoke coming from a house. He called 911. When someone said an elderly woman might still inside, Johnson kicked down the door and looked throughout the house before coming back outside.

They later learned the woman wasn’t home.

“That’s Meech,” Thomas said.

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Johnson tried to be a good man, Thomas said, but he ended up in trouble with the law.

His mother believes it started after his brother, David Curry, was shot in front of him in 2007. Johnson was just 14 and at home with his brother at their house on Shirley Avenue when a shot came through the door. A second shot blasted through the door and hit Curry. He fell into Johnson’s arms.

“He was so messed up over it,” his mother, Lorez Collier, said of Demetrius. “He started going down the wrong path.”

Johnson had been a good kid, growing up, smart, independent and handsome, she said.

“He had the biggest Kool-Aid smile you ever saw,” his mother said.

He had done well in school, and his mother had even tried to get him into a private school. But that changed after the shooting. Johnson wound up at MacCormick Secure Center, a juvenile detention facility outside of Ithaca. While he was there, his father died.

“Demetrius had a fear of people getting close to him because everyone he wound up close to was passing,” Collier said.

But he loved being a father. “He always said he wanted to be a dad like his dad,” she said.

Johnson doted on Treasure and adored his two sons.

“It was the apple of this young man’s eye,” Collier said when his first son, DeMetrius Jr., was born. “He’d say: ‘Ma, he looks like me.’ ”

Johnson got in trouble again in October 2015, when he attempted to rob someone.

She said Johnson was desperate to get money for his family to pay for things like milk and diapers. He pleaded guilty in December to attempted robbery and using a dangerous weapon. He was scheduled to be sentenced to four years in prison on March 23.

Johnson was preparing the children for that day. Thomas recalled how he told them over and over: “Daddy loves you,” and promised that he would come back.

Johnson and Thomas also decided to have another baby together and were planning on getting married before he went away. They set a date – March 16 – to get married at City Hall, Thomas said. And they wanted to be settled in at a nice home for the kids and the baby due in late summer.

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Almost as soon as Johnson and Thomas moved into 90 Humber in early February, they started noticing problems around the house.

Half of the sockets in the house didn’t work. There wasn’t always hot water. There were a lot of problems in the kitchen, which was located toward the back of the house. The food in the fridge kept going bad because the power in the kitchen kept going out.

“Every time we used the dishwasher, the fuses would pop,” Thomas said.

A couple of days after they moved in, a utility pole fell on the ground outside, along with the attached wires.

The landlord said he would take care of it, she said, but more problems kept cropping up. Johnson and the landlord argued.

A couple of days before the fire, Thomas said, the landlord took Johnson to Home Depot to buy some new carpeting and some other little things for the house, but a lot more needed to be fixed.

The Buffalo News tried to reach the landlord without success.

Johnson and Thomas started talking about finding a new apartment, something safer and maybe smaller. Johnson didn’t want Thomas and the children in the place and wanted to get them out by March 1.

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It was February break for Treasure, a third-grader at Gateway Longview’s Day School program, so everyone was home that Thursday, Feb. 19.

The family was still getting used to the layout of the apartment. Some boxes still needed to be unpacked.

Johnson and Thomas made lasagna, and two of the children ate while watching TV in one of their rooms, which were in the back of the house. Thomas and Johnson ate their dinner in front of the TV in their living room with their toddler.

Because none of the sockets in the couple’s bedroom worked, they had hauled the mattress into the living room so they could lie down and watch TV.

The kids went to sleep in their rooms, and Johnson and Thomas relaxed with DeMeriuse. Thomas dozed off.

At about 10 p.m., Johnson woke her up.

“Hey, Sexy Face,” he said. “I have a surprise for you.”

He had cleaned the whole house.

Thomas recalled getting up and checking in on the kids, who were sleeping soundly. She unplugged their TV, both because it used a lot of power and because they were already having so many problems with the outlets.

She went back to bed again on the mattress in the front room, with the baby on her chest and Johnson next to her.

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Thomas woke at about 4 a.m. to the sound of Treasure screaming.

It was pitch black. She couldn’t see. Black smoke was everywhere.

“It was like someone was barbecuing inside the house,” she said.

She shook Johnson awake.

“The house is on fire,” she screamed.

She frantically felt around the mattress for DeMeriuse, grabbed him and tucked his face under her shirt to protect him.

From the back of the house, where the children had been sleeping, she heard Treasure.

“Mommy! Help me!”

Johnson ran to the hallway that led to the back of the house. He stumbled over Treasure, who was on the floor. He scooped her up and carried her toward the entrance.

Thomas stood in the apartment’s entranceway, which led to the front door. Treasure was leaning weakly against her side and the baby was under her shirt. The heat became unbearable. The smoke choked them.

But where was Little Meech?

Johnson broke a window to try to get some air, and then turned back toward the apartment. Thomas screamed at him not to go back in. It was too dangerous.

“My son is in there,” he yelled.

She begged him to come out with her.

“Meech! Meech!” she and Treasure screamed. Johnson went in.

Thomas knew she had to get Treasure and DeMeriuse out of the burning building.

“We have to run if you want to live,” she told her daughter.

Thomas considered heading down the street to ECMC, but realized Treasure wouldn’t make it. Instead, she pulled Treasure across the road and banged on the door of a neighbor’s house.

“Call 911! My house is on fire!”

When the neighbor opened the door and turned on a light, Thomas saw for the first time how badly her daughter had been burned. Skin was falling off of Treasure’s face.

“She came straight through the fire,” Thomas said. “She ran through fire.”

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Smoke poured from the side of the house as more than a dozen fire trucks raced to the fire. The firefighters were alerted that people, including a child, could be trapped inside on both the first and second floors, according to radio calls recorded from the scanner by EC Fire Wire.

A team went into the first-floor apartment and a firefighter soon came rushing out with Little Meech in his arms.

“I didn’t know if he was alive or dead,” Thomas said. “I saw his little feet.”

The firefighters and EMTs wouldn’t let Thomas get near the child as they rushed him into an ambulance.

DeMetrius Jr. wasn’t breathing. The paramedics began trying to resuscitate him as he was rushed to Women & Children’s Hospital. A second ambulance took Treasure to Children’s, and a police officer put Thomas and the baby in a patrol car and they followed.

Thomas was at Children’s, going back and forth between the rooms where Treasure and DeMetrius Jr. were being treated, when she was notified that Johnson had been found.

She later learned that he was located just two minutes after Little Meech was discovered. Two firefighters were injured getting him out of the house.

The fire marshal told her that EMTs did everything they could, but it was too late.

Thomas’ sister, Gwendolyn Taylor, was sitting with DeMetrius Jr. at the hospital a couple of days later, when the little boy, who quickly recovered from the smoke inhalation, seemed to be saying that his father was in the room.

“No, Daddy’s not here,” Taylor told the boy.

At the time, Thomas was in Cincinnati in the Shriners Hospital’s pediatric burn unit with Treasure, who was being treated for burns over nearly 90 percent of her body. The doctors didn’t know if she would live.

“Daddy in the fire,” Little DeMetrius told the aunt.

The boy said his father told him he loved him.

Fire investigators told Thomas the boy was found unconscious on the couch in the front room. Johnson was found an arm’s distance away, next to the couch.

Johnson had burns on both of his hands and on his face. The autopsy showed he died of smoke inhalation.

Thomas believes Johnson made his way through the fire to the back of the house and found his son there. She thinks he managed to carry the boy around the worst of the fire, which was in the middle of the apartment, to the front of the house, where he collapsed by the couch. She thinks there, he comforted his son with his dying words.

“Daddy loves you.”

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After the blaze, the community responded, donating money, clothes and furniture through local churches, and the story of Johnson’s selfless act made the national news.

An investigation continues into the cause of the fire.

Thomas’ now is focused on taking care of Treasure, finding a new home that’s wheelchair accessible for her when she gets out of the hospital, and getting a car so she can drive back and forth between Buffalo and Cincinnati. She is grateful to anyone who wants to help.

Treasure is still listed in critical condition, but she has stabilized.

“She’s a fighter,” Thomas said.

Treasure is awake and can breathe on her own, but she still has a tube in her throat so she can’t talk. The skin grafts she’s had seem to be taking. Her latest operation was Friday. Doctors had to amputate the tips of her fingers, but they saved her toes. The 8-year-old is expected to remain at the Cincinnati hospital until at least August.

Thomas knows she eventually will have to tell Treasure about Johnson’s death. She hopes she can explain that they wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Johnson.

Her sons are too young to understand.

“Daddy is a superhero,” she says to them.

Someday, Thomas wants to write a book about everything that happened. She already knows what the title will be: “The Best House Ever.”

News Staff Reporters Lou Michel and Melinda Miller contributed to this report. email: mbecker@buffnews.com