The box alarm at the abandoned bungalow on East Kirby Street was a typical fire in Detroit. Flames roared out of the upstairs windows as crews arrived shortly after 5 A.M. on Nov. 15, 2008. Engine 23 rolled up, joined by its housemate, Tactical Mobile Squad 3. There were two other engines, a...
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The box alarm at the abandoned bungalow on East Kirby Street was a typical fire in Detroit. Flames roared out of the upstairs windows as crews arrived shortly after 5 A.M. on Nov. 15, 2008. Engine 23 rolled up, joined by its housemate, Tactical Mobile Squad 3. There were two other engines, a ladder and a chief. An extra company, serving as a rapid intervention team, and an EMS unit soon made the scene. As another engine stretched, Engine 23 dropped its monitor, firing a surge of 1,000 gallons of water on the structure, and firefighters stormed the house. Engine 23's Walter Harris joined colleagues in advancing a line up the stairs to the second floor. Within minutes, they had knocked down most of the flames.
Then they heard something crack.
It was the roof, which crashed down within seconds, burying the firefighters in an avalanche of shingles, rotted timber, dust and smoke. Harris never got up. The roof crushed him, and he died of asphyxiation. Arson investigators said the fire had been deliberately set.
Harris was a firefighter in Detroit, and for firefighters, Detroit is both as good and as bad as it gets. The Motor City has been burning for decades, and it is scarred with thousands of abandoned buildings, many of which manage to catch fire. In 2007, Detroit had more than 14,000 structure fires. New York City had twice as many, but New York is nine times bigger than Detroit. In Detroit, city government is broke, and firefighters still swing axes, and they wear bunker gear that is torn and caked with carbon, and often, when the aerial on a ladder truck breaks down, they have to keep taking the truck to fires.
Yet Detroit firefighters maintain a funky esprit de corps that transcends their sometimes surreal surroundings.
"The commissioner knows if something jumps off tonight, these firemen are going to take care of it," said Lieutenant James Davis. "Three on a ride, four on a ride, it don't matter."
Harris, 38, was a huge, charismatic man with a big smile. He was the father of six, a minister, motorcyclist, real estate agent, mentor, mediator and engine-house cook. His death caught the attention of a sprawling metropolitan area, and it focused attention on the grim aspects of a Detroit firefighter's job.
Harris' death also triggered a re-examination of how Detroit fights fires. Since November, firefighters, officers and department executives have been re-assessing the department's hard-charging, interior-attack tradition when faced with fires in vacant buildings, and they are discussing instituting a system in which fire personnel would label abandoned structures with spray paint to warn colleagues who might come there to future fires.
"His death kind of opened up our eyes a little bit," said Lieutenant Robert Shinske, chairman of the union and fire administration's joint safety committee. "The gist of it is to slow our guys down. We have a very aggressive fire department. Sometimes too aggressive. We recognize there are times to be aggressive and times to slow down."
Darnell McLaurin, senior firefighter at Tactical Mobile Squad 5, said crews are using a little more caution since Harris' death.
"We used to pull up, do your initial size-up and then get in there," he said. "Now, we pull up, and say, 'Hey, Let's re-evaluate before we run in this building.' "
Yet an across-the-board policy could be problematic. Because a home is abandoned does not mean it has no occupants. Given the city's decades-old economic crisis, coupled with the nation's mortgage meltdown and economic collapse, desperate residents are increasingly seeking shelter in castoff homes and other buildings.
"We've had so many deaths in houses that were vacant," said Captain Steve Varnas of the arson squad.
Lieutenant Mike Nevin, who worked with Harris for years, added: "Often as you're pulling up to a vacant and stretching out, there's people going out the back."
Bob Dombrowski, a veteran battalion chief, said supervising a fire with personnel inside a structure is the toughest thing he does.