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.
"You stand outside and you worry the whole time that something is going to happen to these guys," he said. "You know they're aggressive, and you don't want to stop that. It's really a fine line of whether to leave them in or pull them out."
Doing More With Less
Detroit is the nation's most beleaguered big city. It has deep-seated problems caused by global forces that make the job of fire commissioner â?? or police chief, public works director and even mayor â?? almost impossible.
With fewer than 900,000 residents, Detroit has lost more than half of its population since 1950, as jobs and people left for the suburbs and beyond. Detroit has frustrated a long list of leaders' plans to re-invent it, though money has poured into the downtown area in recent years in new stadiums, casinos and other developments. The city hosted the 2006 Super Bowl and this month is the site of the 2009 NCAA Final Four. But many neighborhoods are ravaged. The average house price in Detroit at the time of Harris' death was $18,513. It is the poorest major city in the United States, its crime rate annually is one of the highest and the continual outflow of residents means a shrinking tax base that forces periodic cutbacks in city services.
Large swaths of streetlights are out on any given night. Residents constantly complain about the slow response of police. And the fire department limps by with deactivated companies and broken rigs.
"We roll the dice every day," said Dan McNamara, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association. "Every day, the Detroit Fire Department and the city of Detroit make a bet. They're betting that they can provide the minimum amount of service and that nobody is going to die."
On paper, the department operates 66 vehicles: 38 engines, 22 ladders and six squads. But because of manpower and budget problems, the full fleet virtually never is available. Department officials take up to 11 working rigs out of service each day and allow others to respond to runs with serious malfunctions.
February 18 this year was typical. Officials deactivated six engines and two trucks. Seven additional ladders operated that day with broken water towers, pumps, red lines or other problems. In addition, the crew of Squad 4 answered runs in an engine with none of its usual rescue gear because the regular squad was in the shop and there were no backup squad vehicles available.
It is not unusual for battalion chiefs to arrive at a fire and cringe when they see the rigs on the scene. On April 26, 2008, for example, Chief 5 reported to the central dispatcher a two-story dwelling "going throughout" at 30th and Horatio streets.
About 15 minutes later, he got on the radio again, sounding exasperated.
"Central, I'm going to need a truck with a working water tower," he said.
And with nearly a quarter of the rigs out of service or running broken on some days, the department confronts a fire load that is one of the nation's heaviest, by any measure.
"You're fighting more fires with fewer people," Lieutenant Anthony Braceful said on a day in February after his Ladder 25 had recorded 10 runs, including five fires in a row.
Structure fires dropped in 2008 to 8,289 from the 14,321 in 2007, but that still works out to an average of 23 fires a day last year in homes and buildings alone.
Engine 23 is not the busiest company in Detroit, but the month Harris died, it responded to 62 fires and racked up almost 48 hours of fire service.
On top of the daily company closing, officials have shut 25 companies permanently over the past 35 years. Firefighters say the reductions hurt their response times as rigs travel farther to fires. In some extreme cases in the past couple of years, companies on the city's west side have rushed 10 miles across town for an east-side blaze. In the late afternoon of June 27 last year, after a fierce electrical storm, downed wires sparked a fire in a transformer at City Hall and several other fires broke out, firefighters say dispatchers signaled they had run out of companies for a short time.
Executive Fire Commissioner Tyrone Scott declined to comment for this article. In the past, he and other city officials have praised firefighters and assured residents that the department always meets demand for service. Last year, the mayor's office noted the city had spent more than $28 million on the fire department in the previous six years, including the purchase of 12 new engines in August 2007.
Gauging the effect of slower response times is complicated given the difficulty of knowing how long a fire has burned before someone calls 911. Every once in a while, though, a sequence of events takes place in Detroit that puts the department's problems in sharp focus.
In late February last year, when fire broke out in the front room of a home on the city's west side, officials had to scramble, because they had idled two of the closest engines that day, and the next closest engine company had been closed permanently in 2005. Marian Rembis, 37, died in the fire. Her father, 69-year-old William, suffered face and hand burns trying to save her. Her death haunted him for months.
"I think Marian just might be alive today if that first engine had been working," one of her aunts, Barbara Brown Allen, said recently. "We don't blame the firefighters. But dear God! It's unconscionable what the department does. It's just wrong."
That night, across town, an 82-year-old man confined to bed died in a fire. The closest engine to his home was six blocks away. It was de-activated that day.
The fleet problems sometimes lead to absurd situations.
During the busy summer of 2007, someone firebombed an abandoned home on Caldwell Street, and the flames extended to a home next door occupied by 22-year-old Adrian Griffin. At least three of the rigs on the scene that night were broken. The engine stretched in front of Griffin's burning house leaked water and pink transmission fluid. Eventually, the rig's motor overheated and had to be shut down.
Griffin noticed, she said later, even as she stood across the street watching her home burn in a ferocious orange ball. She said she asked herself, "Is that fire engine smoking?"
Paradoxically, when Detroit peaked in population in the mid-1950s with 2 million people, the department fought fewer than 6,000 fires a year â?? and there were 101 companies in that era, 34 more than in 2009. The department had around 1,650 firefighters then; today, it has 1,029.
In February, the department graduated its first class of rookie firefighters in four years. The 18 men were all veterans of other city departments, and one was 47. The average age of a Detroit firefighter, according to the union, is 42.
Are Cities Supposed To Be Like Detroit?
One of the reasons for the vastly increased workload is the amount of abandoned buildings. No one knows how many empty homes and businesses exist within Detroit's 138 square miles, but estimates range from 35,000 to 87,000. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that Detroit in 2000 had 38,668 vacant houses â?? about 10% of the total number of housing units. Firefighters say that over a year, the majority of their fires take place in empty buildings. In addition to homes, the roster of empty structures includes factories, churches, stores and schools. Detroit also has an abandoned train station that is 17 stories tall, and the remains of a ballpark â?? Tiger Stadium â?? that has been partially demolished.
A few blocks from the quarters of Engine 23/Squad 3 is one of the largest abandoned buildings in the nation, the former home of the Packard Motor Car Co., which stopped making cars in Detroit in 1956. The building has 3.5 million square feet and stretches nearly a mile from north to south. It is crumbling inside and out. Almost all of its thousands of windows are broken, and trees grow out of the roof. Engine 23 and Squad 3 are called there for fires â?? mostly started by scrappers and homeless people â?? at least twice a month.
Of the 12 Detroit firefighters who have died in the line of duty over the past 32 years, six deaths took place at vacant buildings. In 2007, 11-year-veteran Fire Engine Operator Joe Torkos died when the rig he was driving to an arson fire at an abandoned house was rammed by a speeding car.
"After a while, you begin to think this is normal," said Battalion Chief Greg Best, speaking of the Detroit landscape. "You take this for granted. But every once in a while you ask yourself, is this a normal city? Are cities supposed to be like this, with all this abandonment?"
Firefighter Jeff Hamm, a colleague and friend of Harris, said: "Detroit is a city where the abnormal is normal."
The empty structures serve as kindling for arsonists. Just three weeks before the death of Harris, a 70-year-old woman died when the flames from a deliberately-set fire in a vacant house next door extended to her house.
The exact number of arson fires in Detroit is impossible to know because the scaled-down arson squad cannot investigate all the suspicious fires. Varnas, the arson captain, said the squad received 6,486 assignments in 2008. Those fires were suspicious, of undetermined origin, incendiary, or ones that resulted in death or injury. Investigators were able to look into only 39%, but they project Detroit had 3,800 arson fires last year, including the one that killed Harris. His killer has not been caught.
"Arson is destroying Detroit more than any other crime, but it's the least combated," Varnas said.
Remembering Walter Harris
Harris spent his entire 17-year career in the 110-year-old engine house shared by Engine 23 and Squad 3 on East Grand Boulevard, a once-gracious thoroughfare whose broken-down appearance reflects the fate of Detroit. The house next door is abandoned.
The apparatus floor smells of smoke, and the living quarters are modest, bordering on shabby. The modern communications system with central office doesn't work, so runs come via fax, and the paper triggers a door hinge that flops onto a screw that sets off a small alarm, then someone punches the louder house alert.
A swordfish is mounted on one wall, and another carries mementoes of Harris. His locker is on the second floor. Inside the door is a bumper sticker that reads: "Real Men Love Jesus."
In December, Harris' death was back in the news when city crews demolished the house on East Kirby. It took 18 minutes. Because of its budget problems, Detroit can knock down only a few hundred abandoned homes each year; this job was rushed when firefighters pressured city council members.
In January, most of the members of the Detroit Tigers stopped by on a bus during the team's annual community goodwill tour. They held a short ceremony and shared some chow. A few of the Tigers fought back tears. Manager Jim Leyland was supposed to make some remarks, but he choked back tears.
That night, the department radio was quiet as firefighters from Engine 23 and Squad 3 talked about the job, the city and their fallen brother.
Hamm, who was next to Harris when the roof collapsed, described the emotional toll of losing a friend who had been such a presence and the futility of losing him in an abandoned house, to an arsonist.
Said Hamm: "I still expect him to come through that door."
BILL McGRAW writes the Motor City Journal column for the Detroit Free Press. He is the co-editor of The Detroit Almanac, and has written about the Detroit Fire Department for 25 years.