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...
To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login
Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.
Complete the registration form.
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.