Detroit firefighters' selfie in front of burning home triggers lawsuit

The homeowner alleges that fire crews didn't care about saving his home because he lives in a black neighborhood


Tresa Baldas
Detroit Free Press

DETROIT — The infamous selfie of Detroit firefighters posing in front of a burning house has triggered a lawsuit, with the homeowner alleging that fire crews didn't care about saving his home because he lives in a Black neighborhood.

Moreover, he states, firefighters never apologized for the "outrageous image of 17 white firefighters posing and smiling" while his "fully engulfed home burned to the ground."

Higginbotham filed a negligence lawsuit against the city of Detroit, the Detroit Fire Department and all the firefighters in the photo. (Photo/Detroit Fire Incidents Page)
Higginbotham filed a negligence lawsuit against the city of Detroit, the Detroit Fire Department and all the firefighters in the photo. (Photo/Detroit Fire Incidents Page)

“It’s a really horrible look for the city of Detroit,” the plaintiff's attorney,  Steve Haney, said of the infamous photo.  "It is very hard to ignore the racial reality (that) this would not have happened in a different neighborhood"

The homeowner, Deonte Higginbotham, said he has yet to hear from anyone at the fire department.

“I thought they would reach out,” Higginbotham said. “They didn’t. No one.”

On Tuesday, Higginbotham filed a negligence lawsuit against the city of Detroit, the Detroit Fire Department and all the firefighters in the photo. A protest over the December 31 fire is scheduled for Thursday 4 p.m.  in front of Detroit City Hall.  

"The photo seen around the world is symbolic of white law enforcement's abjectly disrespect for the welfare of Black American families like the Higginbothams," states the 21-page lawsuit, which seeks financial damages in excess of $25,000.

City officials were not available to comment on the lawsuit, though fire officials have previously described the selfie as a "momentary lapse in judgement" and said that the 18 firefighters involved would be disciplined.

According to the lawsuit, the Dec. 31 fire at 611 S. Green Street destroyed Higginbortham's house, which was under renovation at the time, with new kitchen cabinets, an island, stairwell and hardwood floors all lost in the blaze. The house had been in his family for 50 years, and was in the middle of a $100,000 renovation project.

While no one was home at the time of the fire, the lawsuit alleges that the fire department knew that the house was not abandoned nor vacant, and didn't do enough to save it.

More: Police: Man returns to Macomb Twp. bar after getting kicked out, fires shots at building

Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones has previously said \firefighters tried to enter the building, but realized they couldn't because it wasn't structurally sound.

As for the selfie, another fire official said the photo was suggested as a commemoration of the retirement of a fire battalion chief,

"I am satisfied that everyone involved has shown the appropriate level of regret for this inappropriate behavior," Jones previously said.

The photo was originally posted on the "Detroit Fire Incidents Page" on Facebook with the caption "crews take a moment to get a selfie on New Years!" In the background is a house engulfed in flames. That post has since been taken down.

Tresa Baldas: tbaldas@freepress.com

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit firefighters' selfie in front of burning home triggers lawsuit

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