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18-year-old Black woman set on fire by white men in suspected hate crime incident

She told police that the men sprayed her with lighter fluid at a stoplight, lit her face and neck on fire, and called her the n-word.

18-year-old Black woman set on fire by white men in suspected hate crime incident
Cover Image Source: Protesters gather near the White House before a group tried to pull down the statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square on June 22, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Althea Bernstein, an 18-year-old Black woman, was on her way to her brother’s house in Madison, Wisconsin, at around 1 a.m. Wednesday when she was allegedly attacked by four white men. Bernstein—who works as an EMT while studying to be a paramedic and firefighter—told police that the men sprayed her with lighter fluid at a stoplight, lit her face and neck on fire, and called her the n-word. The attack, which is now being investigated as a hate crime, left her with second and third-degree burns and comes amid nationwide protests against racism and police brutality.


Speaking to local news outlet Madison 365 about the traumatic incident, Bernstein said: "I was listening to some music at a stoplight and then all of a sudden I heard someone yell the N-word really loud. I turned my head to look and somebody’s throwing lighter fluid on me. And then they threw a lighter at me, and my neck caught on fire and I tried to put it out, but I brushed it up onto my face. I got it out and then I just blasted through the red light...  I just felt like I needed to get away. So I drove through the red light and just kept driving until I got to my brother and Middleton."


The Madison police department said in a Wednesday incident report that the assailants used a spray bottle to spray lighter fluid on Bernstein. "She says one used a spray bottle to deploy a liquid on her face and neck, and then threw a flaming lighter at her, causing the liquid to ignite. She drove forward, patted out the flames, and eventually drove home. Her mother encouraged her to go to a hospital. Hospital staff believed the liquid was lighter fluid. She was treated for burns, and will need to make follow-up visits to access additional medical care," it states.


Bernstein revealed she's reasonably certain it was four white men who "looked like classic Wisconsin frat boys... Two of them were wearing all black, and then the other two were wearing jeans and a floral shirt." She added that the way they walked gave her reason to believe they were intoxicated. "It's totally unacceptable given everything that is going on this country," Michael Johnson—CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County—who spoke on behalf of Bernstein and her family, told Buzzfeed News.


The young woman stated that she was able to drive to her brother's and back home after the attack because she was in shock—a phenomenon she's seen often in her line of work. "I've had patients in shock and I know what shock is based on the textbook," she said. "It's so incapacitating, you don't even realize what's going on. My brain still got me home and my brain still got me to call my mom. I just remember my face was bleeding." Bernstein revealed that after her mother told her to call their health care provider, the nurses on the line were quite shocked by her account of the incident.


"They were just like, 'Wait a minute. Will you say that again? What’s happening?' I was like, yeah, I got a little toasted," she revealed. Bernstein ultimately decided to drive herself to the UW Hospital emergency department where she had to go through a decontamination routine to get the lighter fluid off her skin since it was continuing to burn her. "There was this guy and he washed my hair and scrubbed my back. And I was like, 'Okay, this is not that bad. I'm going to have to come here more often for a shower," she explained. The experience stopped being so pleasant soon after that when the pain came rushing in.


"They had to pretty much scrub the skin off, which was extremely painful," she said. "Burn pain is something I can’t even really describe. I don’t know how to describe it. It was horrible." Despite the ordeal, she went through, Bernstein struck a forgiving tone when speaking of the men who attacked her. "I think everyone deserves a chance to improve. I hope they feel bad and make a change," she said. "I'm glad it was me, and not someone like a pregnant woman, or a child, or someone who doesn’t have the health care that I do or the support system that I do."


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