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Internet 'fire challenge' leaves 12-year-old Detroit girl severely burned

Timiyah Landers. Photo courtesy of Brandi Owens.1 / 2
Timiyah Landers in the hospital. Photo courtesy of Brandi Owens.2 / 2

Sitting around the kitchen table, Brandi Owens waited until her daughter and her two friends finished eating their pancakes before leaving them to take a quick nap. About 10 to 15 minutes after settling into bed with her fiance, Owens heard a loud pop.

"I asked him, I said, 'What was that?' " she told The Washington Post.

Seconds later, Owens's 12-year-old daughter, Timiyah Landers, came tearing down the hallway, engulfed in flames from her knees to her hair.

She "looked like a fireball," Owens said. "She was yelling, 'Help me.' "

Owens's fiance, Marquell Sholar, immediately sprang into action, trying to put out the flames while getting Timiyah into the bathroom and inside the bathtub. As Sholar doused the teen in cold water, Owens grabbed at her daughter's flaming clothes with her bare hands, ripping them off.

"I was reaching through the fire," Owens said, adding that she didn't even realize she had burned her hands. "It was like a reflex. . . . I didn't even feel the fire, I was just saving my daughter."

The couple managed to extinguish the fire, and soon Timiyah was bundled into the car with Owens at the wheel, driving as fast as she could to the nearest hospital.

During the five-minute drive, Owens said she felt as if she was on the brink of going insane. Thoughts raced through her mind: What had the girls been doing? What had happened? Interrupting the questions was a single prayer, "Lord, God, please let my baby be okay."

Friday was supposed to be a relaxing summer afternoon at home, Owens said. Usually, when Timiyah invites friends over, the girls watch videos or spend hours gabbing away.

But now, Timiyah is in intensive care at a children's hospital with nearly half her body covered in severe burns. It was the outcome of attempting a viral Internet dare known as the "fire challenge," which usually involves pouring rubbing alcohol on your body, setting yourself on fire and filming it all. It's just one of numerous social-media-fed stunts - some harmless, some life-threatening - into which young people have been lured over the past few years. Some may remember the "cinnamon challenge," eating a spoonful of ground cinnamon undiluted by water, a reckless exploit that can cause gagging, vomiting, collapsed lungs and hospitalization.

Although Owens said she had never heard of the fire challenge before Friday, videos of teens setting themselves on fire started appearing on social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube about four years ago. Timiyah is also not the first person to be seriously injured doing it.

In July 2014, a 15-year-old from Kentucky sustained second-degree burns after trying the fire challenge. A month later, a 16-year-old in Santa Ana, California, poured nail polish remover on his chest and lit himself on fire. He was hospitalized with second- and third-degree burns.

"Being burned alive was one of the worst things you can imagine," the California teen told KABC-TV at the time. "It's my fault. I can't say nothing else besides it was a dumb idea."

But teenagers weren't the only group getting in on the trend. In August 2014, a North Carolina mother was arrested and charged with contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile for allegedly helping her 16-year-old son try the fire challenge. According to police, Janie Lachelle Talley "was present and aware of what her son (was) doing and facilitated the recording," the Charlotte News Observer reported.

Since then, there have been numerous incidents of fire challenges gone awry. Just last month, in a case with striking similarities to Timiyah's, a 12-year-old boy from South Carolina burned more than 40 percent of his body participating in the challenge.

Owens said her daughter is on a ventilator and needs a feeding tube. Timiyah has second- and third-degree burns, and most of her body is covered in heavy white bandages.

As other seventh-graders prepare to go back to school in a few weeks, Owens said her daughter won't be joining them. Doctors told Owens that Timiyah will be hospitalized for at least the next few months and has about four more surgeries left.

Though she hasn't been able to ask Timiyah what happened, Owens said the other girls explained that they were doing the fire challenge. Timiyah had poured rubbing alcohol on her arms, Owens said, and one of the others had lit the fire.

One of them had tried the challenge at her own home and sustained only minor burns, so she introduced it to Timiyah and her other friend that afternoon, Owens said.

"The girl said it seemed like fun," she said, "you just have to be by water when you're doing the fire challenge, so my daughter offered to try it."

While it isn't exactly clear what went wrong, Owens thinks it might have had something to do with the body spray Timiyah was wearing.

"When she put the alcohol on her and the girl lit the fire, it just basically blew up because she already had flammable things on her anyway, perfumes and stuff like that," Owens said, adding that Timiyah's friends are also traumatized from the incident.

"They weren't expecting it to go that way," she said. "It was just a challenge, so it's a lesson learned for all of them."

Beyond people setting themselves on fire, the Internet is the source of a variety of bizarre challenges, many of which leave people wondering one thing: Why?

Why would you want to eat a Tide Pod? Why would you want to rub salt on your arm and then put an ice cube on it? Why would you want to snort a condom into your nose and try to pull it out of your mouth?

Owens said she thinks her daughter was motivated by curiosity.

"When they look on YouTube, they see, 'Oh okay, wow, I want to try that, the outcome with him was okay,' " she said. "Some kids know their right from their wrong, but they can still be curious to try something, to say that they tried it."

Now, as Timiyah begins her lengthy road to recovery, Owens said she hopes YouTube will begin taking down videos related to these dangerous challenges.

"If we weren't home, she'd have died," Owens said. "Those kids wouldn't have known what to do, but to sit there and let her burn. It'd have been pretty much over for her."

This article was written by Allyson Chiu, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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