WARNING: This story contains graphic content that some readers may find disturbing. Discretion is advised.
An 18-year-old biracial woman says four white men set her on fire at a stoplight in Madison, Wis., leaving her with second- and third-degree burns on her neck and face.
The Madison Police Department says it’s investigating the case as a hate crime.
“We’re going to do a thorough investigation and do everything we can to identify who was involved,” police Chief Vic Wahl told NBC 15.
Althea Bernstein says the incident happened while she was stopped at a red light in her car early Wednesday, at approximately 1 a.m. in downtown Madison. She had her window down at the time.
“I was listening to some music at a stoplight and then all of a sudden I heard someone yell the N-word really loud,” Bernstein, who is training to become an EMT, told the news outlet Madison 365.
She says four white men approached the car, used a spray bottle to douse her with lighter fluid, then tossed a lighter at her.
“My neck caught fire and I tried to put it out, but I brushed it up onto my face,” she said.
Bernstein says she hit the gas, drove through the red light and patted the flames out, then drove to her brother’s house.
Her mother sent her to the hospital after seeing the extent of her injuries, the Madison Police Department said.
Hospital staff told police that Bernstein’s injuries were consistent with lighter fluid.
Bernstein’s family shared a photo of her injuries on Thursday and asked for privacy while she recovers from the burns. In a statement, they said they were “saddened by what happened to Althea and the unprovoked attack on her body.”
Bernstein told ABC’s Good Morning America (GMA) that she’s still grappling with the psychological impact of the attack and that she’ll need more treatment for the burns in the future.
“I haven’t really slept and I don’t really have an appetite,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to ever feel like this.”
The incident comes amid nationwide protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis last month. The protests have triggered several incidents of racist backlash involving white people taunting or attacking Black people, including Black Lives Matter protesters.
Bernstein said she was shocked to face such racism in Madison, where she’s lived her whole life.
She told Madison 365 that the white men “looked like classic Wisconsin frat boys.” Two of them wore all black, while the other two were wearing jeans and floral shirts.
Bernstein told GMA that she hopes her attackers see what they’ve done.
“I’m very, very hopeful that these men see all the responses and that they know that they hurt me and that this is something that’s going to affect me for a while,” she said. “And I really hope that they choose to improve themselves.”
Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway denounced the attack as a “racially motivated hate crime” in a statement on Thursday.
“This is a horrifying and absolutely unacceptable crime that I will not tolerate in Madison,” she said. She added that the incident “may have been a premeditated crime targeted toward people of colour.”
Investigators are looking for surveillance footage of the incident and have appealed to the public for any information that might help identify suspects in the case.