In the worst disaster to strike the Detroit Fire Department since 1917 when five firefighters were killed in a building collapse, three firefighters were killed and 10 were injured in two separate incidents while fighting a five-alarm fire on March 12, 1987.
Originally settled in 1701, Detroit suffered its first devastating fire on June 11, 1805, when the entire village consisting of 200 wooden buildings burned to the ground. The seal and motto of Detroit are based on the fire that wiped out the frontier village in 1805. Adopted in 1829, “Speramus Meliora” (We hope for better things) and “Resurget Cinerbus” (It shall rise again from the ashes) still seem appropriate, even 158 years later.
On Thursday, March 12, an alarm was received at the Detroit Central Fire Alarm office. Box 382 was transmitted for a reported fire in a warehouse at the Jeffries Expressway service drive and Hancock Avenue. Engines 10, 34 and 5, Ladder 9 and Squad 4, under the command of acting Fifth Battalion Chief Pat Adams, responded.
The usual first-due Engine 31 was out of service. The firehouse of Ladder 9 and the department training academy, however, are located across the street from the rear of the fire building, and permitted quick response.
Located at 4584 Jeffries Expressway service drive, the fire building (a former warehouse for the Motor City Wiping Cloth Company) was four stories high and consisted of heavy timber construction. The first floor was situated half below the street and half above. Shaped like an L, the building measured almost 200 feet along the service drive. The long portion of the building ran from the service drive through to the next block and measured nearly 400 feet.
Vacant for the past four years and loaded with piles and bales of rags, the building was a haven for vagrants. The premises had been protected by an automatic sprinkler system but it had been vandalized and was out of service. Apparently, the deed for the building was held by the State of Michigan because the owner was delinquent with taxes.
There had been several other fires the vacant building. At least one fire occurred there on November 10, 1986, and another one on February 5, during which several firefighters narrowly escaped injury. After these fires, several fire units toured the building for familiarization.
The vacant building was ordered demolished by the city council sometime during December 1986. On Monday, March 9, the city awarded a $324,000 demolition contract with work to begin within 10 days after it was signed.
Squad 4 responded with an officer and three firefighters, arriving behind Ladder 9. “We got a good view of the warehouse when we came across the expressway and there was nothing showing at that point,” states Lieutenant Robert English. Continues he: “As we came down the service drive, we still couldn’t see anything. We got to the alley that separates the vacant warehouse and Continental Paper Company and I left the rig. I saw a little smoke coming out the top-floor window.”
English radioed that Squad 4 was on the scene and would check further because light smoke was showing on the top floor. The front door had to be forced. Recalls English: “It was the only door in the building that was secured. Every other door was open. We’ve been in the building several times before.”
Firefighters went in the main entrance and turned right. They could not locate any stairs, but did observe a lot of rubbish on the floor. There wasn’t any fire on the first floor. Says English: “We went to the north end of the building and found a narrow stairway. We climbed the stairs to the top floor and noticed two or three bales of rags (eight feet high and five feet in diameter) at the top of the stairs. We had to walk to the right around the bales that weighed approximately 2000 pounds.
“Walking across the top floor, we could see fire nearly two-thirds of the way down this large, 200- by 30-foot room. The first fire was approximately 10 to 12 feet in circumference.” Adds English: “Lieutenant Paul Schimeck of first-due Engine 10 reached the doorway into another room that was large enough to allow the passage of forklifts. He reported he could see two to four bales burning in the room and another fire in a small room.”
Continues English: “Lieutenant Schimeck hollered, ‘We’ll need the inch-and-a-half.’ They knew they would have to break the bales open and use a lot of water.” English radioed to the chief there were three separate rubbish fires requiring a 1½-inch hose-line and requested he hold all companies until the fire was controlled.
Firefighter Bob Latka of Squad 4 was lowering a rope out the window to haul the hose-line and wye gate upstairs to the fourth floor. “We all had masks with us but we didn’t have them on because it was clear. There was very little smoke,” says Latka.
Fire equipment operator of Engine 10, Joe Zyla, had repositioned his rig past the window where the rope was being lowered. Two hundred feet of 1½-inch line and a wye gate supplied by 2½-inch hose were tied up in the rope dropped by Latka. When Zyla and another firefighter finished tying the rope, the firefighter started upstairs and Zyla headed for a hydrant.
Recalls English: “We were dragging the line up when we heard a whoom, whoosh.” Adds Latka: “The 2½-inch supply-line, the wye gate and the 200 feet of 1½-inch line were all in one knot and we were trying to bring it up at the same time.” Zyla was surprised that so much hose was requested. Continues Latka: “Paul (Schimeck) knew we had to go back further so we wanted a lot of line.”
Recalls firefighter Dennis Welcher of second-due Engine 5: “I went up the aerial of Ladder 9, positioned on the service drive. The ladder was in the third window from the far right or south end of the warehouse. I got onto the fourth floor and could see other firefighters at the other end. There was a fire on the floor. It was a little smoky but not enough to require SCBA. The firefighters were huddled around the fire, untying the line and talking. There was no atmosphere of emergency. I walked down the room and decided I’d better put my mask on because as soon as we started putting water on the fire it would be uncomfortable.”
Continues Welcher: “I started walking toward my comrades, about five windows down when all of a sudden the fire started growing. Then I heard them yell, ‘That’s it! Get out! Get out!’ It blew up. I’ve never seen a fire race like that, the way it hit the wall and turned left. It mushroomed like a wave of water; similar to when water hits something in a jar, sloshes and then turns. The fire was everywhere—on the ground, ceiling, floors, walls.
“Suddenly, it just blew up and hit the top of the ceiling, shot to the front wall and started racing down the warehouse toward me,” says Welcher. “The fire was between myself and the other firefighters. It came right to the wall, turned left and just consumed the warehouse. Fire was coming out every window it passed. It raced along the floor and top of the ceiling at the same time. Some of the firefighters were running for the windows. I turned around and started running back to the aerial ladder. I jumped out the window onto the aerial and I wasn’t two rungs down the ladder when the fire came out the window through which I had just passed.”
Confirms English: “The fire was coming right through the doors across from us. A fireball came out the doorway, so we took off, running for the stairs, but the fire was outrunning us. It came right across the 12-foot-high ceiling. The heat and smoke were banking down on us.
Explains English: “We got to the bales and couldn’t find the stairs. There were other firefighters, and Latka, Derrick Grochowski and Schimeck were looking for them. I radioed the chief and said, ‘Get ladders up; get us out of here; we’re in trouble!’ At that point we still couldn’t find the stairs so I went to a window, looked out and saw they didn’t have many firefighters down there. So I went back and tried to find the stairway again. It was just too hot. I got back to the bales but couldn’t stay there. I put my mask on and went back to the window again. Visibility was terrible; you couldn’t see a hand in front of your face. A flashlight was useless.”
In response to the radio message requesting help, a second alarm was requested immediately by Acting Chief Adams, only 13 minutes after the initial alarm was dispatched. The third alarm was transmitted three minutes later.
Recalls Latka: “We had to run more than 100 feet. I was the last one to really get up and walk. All these guys were in front of me. I remember seeing their names on the back of their coats. But after going about 30 feet, they just disappeared. We could hear the fire crackling over our heads as we ran. We knew the fire was coming right behind us.”
Except for the bales at the top of the stairs, the room was clear of other large obstacles. Explains Latka: “The north stairway was about 30 to 40 feet in from the building line and I must have run right by it.” Concurs Grochowski of Squad 4: “I had the same trouble as the others. Basically, we were all together at that point, running from the room. When we got to the point where we thought the stairs were located, we split looking for it.’
“All the firefighters on the top floor were in the same general area, but you couldn’t see them,” says Latka.
Two firefighters did find the stairs. Sergeant Thiebert of Engine 34 was coming up the stairs, saw Sergeant Gusoff of Ladder 9 at the top and pulled him down the stairway. Firefighter Donald Bynum found the stairway on his own. Thiebert, thinking that other firefighters were still upstairs and in trouble, went to the top floor to search.
Remembers Welcher: “I came down the aerial and firefighter Barbara Grace was coming up. I told her to get down, and we both proceeded down the ladder. We got to the street, a little past the front door of the warehouse, and that’s when I looked up to see five faces in four windows. They came out of the smoke and fire from nowhere. We were shocked that they hadn’t made the stairs andwere still up there.’
Adds English: ‘‘We mounted the windows simultaneously, and firefighters ran to Ladder 9, positioned near the alley, and began pulling off a 40-foot ladder. They only had a couple of firelighters because almost everybody was still in the building.” The ladder had to he carried approximately 200 feet to the location of the trapped firefighters.
Says English: “I leaned out the window with my facepiece on so they could see me. A lot of smoke was going overhead and it was hot. My coat must have been up in the back and my boot might have been down a little bit because I got burned on the back of the thigh. I placed my right leg out the window onto a little lip, probably no more than two-and-a-half inches wide. I got my left leg on the window sill and took the facepiece off. With my left hand holding me in the window, I was out as far as I could be without falling.”
At this point, Lieutenant Schimeck fell from a window three or four windows south of English’s window. Schimeck was hanging out, holding on by his hands, when the fire started to vent out his window. He either slipped or fell and hit a small ledge on the floor below. When he hit the ledge, he fell backward and landed headfirst on the sidewalk.
Welcher ran to Schimeck, dragged him to the middle of the street and started to work on him. Says Welcher: ‘‘He was lying at the base of the building with his SCBA on. Fire was pouring out the windows. We started working on him. Other companies started pulling up. We placed Schimeck in the back of an arson car and took him to the hospital.”
“He was trying to hold on,” claims English. “I saw him fall and I saw him hit the ground. I knew he was dead. I hoped I didn’t fall like that. I tried to look back inside. There was nothing except fire to the left. Out in the street was a 40-foot plus drop. I started looking at a heavy telephone cable that was about 15 feet off the ground, thinking, ‘If I’ve got to go, that’s what I have to go for.’ Then I could see the guys coming with the ladder.”
Fire was blowing out the front windows of the warehouse on the south end and was moving toward English, Grochowski and Latka, trapped on the north side. Says English: “All along the top floor we could see fire bursting out the windows in a domino effect, coming out each window. The fire had reached the area from where Schimeck fell, three or four windows away from us. Fire surrounded us in there. The heat! That’s why we had to get as low as possible at the windows. My hand was holding me in the window that was approximately 30 inches off the floor. I had gloves on and still got second-degree burns.”
Recalls Grochowski: “Lieutenant English and I were hanging out windows right next to each other, waiting for help to arrive. I crawled out onto a ledge that was one- to two-inches wide. Because the fire was already blowing by us, I just wanted to get out of its way. I slipped and fell backward, catching the telephone cable on the way down. I hit the cable and did a complete 360-degree turn and as soon as I hit the ground, I got up and got out of there. My helmet had fallen off in the fall. I broke my wrist, shoulder and sustained a bone-deep laceration.”
States English: “The ladder was on the outside of the telephone cable and when the fly section was raised, the dogs didn’t lock and it slid back down. I was reaching for it and it started down. They raised the ladder back up. The ladder never did get back into the building but when it came up, I grabbed it and swung out on it. The chief was on the ground hollering, ‘slide it,’ so I slid down the best I could. When I got to the ground, I saw Grochowski. I figured anyone who falls four floors and gets up walking is in pretty good shape. I looked to my right and they were working on Schimeck. I knew he was gone.”
Sergeant Thiebert attempted to search for the other firefighters trapped on the top floor but he, too, was forced to a window. Miraculously, he wound up at the same window where English had been. He also came down the portable ladder used to rescue English only seconds before. “As Thiebert was coming down the ladder, other firefighters were hollering, ‘We’ve got a guy around the corner, says English. Continues he: “I ran over and looked up and that’s when I saw Latka. We had to get the ladder over to him by pushing it over an eight-foot- high fence. Don Bynum went over the fence first, without a ladder. I called for a small, 12-foot extension ladder, went up on that and jumped over from the top. The other firefighters followed us over, and we raised the ladder, threw up the fly section and Latka came out on it.”
Joe Zyla of Engine 10 headed for a hydrant approximately 50 feet north of the fire building, positioned at the hydrant, set the brake and put the engine into pump. Exiting the rig, he looked up and unexpectedly saw the fire venting out the front windows and five faces appear in the windows amid heavy smoke.
Remembers Latka: “When I got to the window and straddled the ledge, I looked down the building and saw the fire coming out all windows to my right along the top floor.” Continues Latka: “We started to run toward the stairway after the fire blew. When I hit the first pile of rags, it was already so black that I knew if I didn’t use my mask I would pass out. I got on my hands and knees and put on my mask. I knew we were in trouble; everybody wanted to know, ‘Where’s the stairway, where’s the stairway?’ The lieutenant got on the radio and called for help. I had to go to the window.”
The fire was coming toward Latka with the same domino effect that occurred in the front of the building. This time, the fire was approaching Latka’s position from the rear of the warehouse. Recalls Latka: “Zyla saw I was trapped. He had to hook up to the hydrant, set up the deck gun and crank up the pressure. He then climbed up on the engine and directed the deck gun toward my area.
“I was probably up in the window for approximately four or five minutes before he got the deck gun aimed to my window.”
Continues Latka: “I was holding on. I looked back into the window out of the black smoke and I saw a flash of red come whipping out. Then I looked at the window right next to me and the fire was trying to whip out that window too! So I knew the deck gun was holding the fire back. After I was up there for a couple of minutes I could see the firefighters struggling with the ladder.”
Several firefighters hopped over the eight-foot. chain-link fence. They pushed the 40-foot pole ladder on top of the fence where it got stuck. With a minimum of manpower they were pushing and pulling on the ladder trying to get it into position to reach Latka.
Remembers Latka: “I’ve been to fires where they’ve put a monitor in a window and it still didn’t hold back the fire. I really didn’t think I was out of it yet. I said, ‘I’m not going to jump until I start to burn,’ but I already had resigned myself to jumping. I also thought, ‘When I jump and hit the ground, I’ll be hurt. I’ll never be a firefighter again.’ But when the monitor bought me a few minutes, I thought, ‘Well, you know maybe, maybe, I might get out of here.’ That’s when I saw the ladder. I started to feel a little bit better about it. When the ladder came I was just happy to get out of there. I got down to the bottom, saw Lieutenant English and gave him a hug. I saw he was burned. And I saw Zyla, the engineer, and looked him right in the eye. He looked at me. We had to get the guys to the hospital so we all got in the squad rig and went to the hospital but I came back later and thanked Zyla.”
Says Latka: “We were lucky to get to the windows, and I’m glad nobody stayed in the place and burned. That would have been worse.
A few firefighters tried to make an attack up the stairway after the fourth floor blew, but conditions were so bad they couldn’t reach the top of the stairs. Says Latka: “When we were walking to the squad rig, the fourth floor was fully involved and the cars in the street were starting to burn. We couldn’t even walk down the street. Our hands were burning in our gloves. That’s how hot the fire was.” Confirms English: “Before we went to the hospital the fire had already communicated across a 15-foot-wide alley to the south and involved the roof of the Continental Paper Company. The fourth and fifth alarms were requested shortly thereafter.”
States Latka: “There was nobody up there with less than 14 years on the job. They called it when we got up there – we had three separate rubbish fires. It was a total surprise to us. We’ve seen a lot of fires, but nothing like this.
“All the windows were open; that was obvious because they were all knocked out. The firefighters knew where the stairway was. The room was clear. Smoke was at the top of the ceiling and light smoke was coming out of the windows. There appeared to be nothing to worry about.”
Adds Grochowski: “The back room was open except for where the four or five bales were burning openly. The room extended back, but the distance from the front room door to the fire location was approximately 100 to 125 feet in a north-eastern direction. The whole top floor was open.
Investigators theorize another fire was burning out of control unbeknown to firefighters in the extreme northeast section of the warehouse. The raging fire then exploded through a double doorway and entered the room in which firefighters were about to operate.
Another minor miracle occurred during the fire. Shortly after Latka was rescued, a high-voltage power line came down in the area in front of the building where the firefighters had been raising the portable ladder to rescue English, Schimeck and Grochowski.
The fire spread rapidly to the Continental Paper Company warehouse, which was sprinklered. The three-story structure consisted of several sections and was built of heavy timber construction. The building was triangular in shape, measuring more than 300 feet long, facing the expressway service drive. The side that faced the vacant warehouse was 300 feet long. The south side of the building was nearly 340 feet long and was adjacent to railroad tracks. Access to the alley between the vacant warehouse and Continental was blocked because of the heavy fire condition. The top floor of the vacant warehouse facing the service drive collapsed, leaving the rest of the structure in a precarious position and subject to collapse.
Several ladder-pipes and elevating platforms were set up around the warehouse complex. Due to the crumbling walls, platforms had to be set up on the Jeffries Expressway. Additional platforms and hand-lines were placed in operation at the rear of the warehouse on Lawton Avenue. The fire had traveled the length of the structure and now was threatening a large, four-story, vacant commercial building, located to the north and east of the original fire building. Several hand-lines were required to keep the fire from gaining a foothold.
Several units were special called and requested to assist in the protection of exposures and to back up initial positions. The fire burned under the eaves of the paper company and also spread across the roof. Hand-lines were stretched into the first, second and third floors. Ladder-pipes and other master streams played onto the roof. The fire burned away the roof in several sections, probably damaging sprinkler piping in the area closest to the warehouse.
Because of the inability to get lines in between the warehouse and the paper company, heavy fire consumed the rear, three-story section of the paper company. Hose-lines were stretched along the railroad tracks on the south side of the paper company. The paper warehouse contained a large variety of paper goods and products loaded on pallets.
Operating in the exposure to the northeast, Lieutenant Dick Rail of Squad 6 recalls: “We stretched additional 2½-inch lines into the exposure. The original fire building had collapsed into the basement with only the walls standing. Some of the younger firefighters commented, ‘I guess that’s what it would be like to go to hell.’ We stayed there awhile until we heard over our portable radios that there were three firefighters trapped in the paper warehouse.” It was almost 6 P.M.
Continues Rail: “We ran down the service drive along with what seemed like anyone else who had a radio. When I got to the front of the building, acting Chief Adams asked me to get some lights and a generator, and directed us to where they thought the people were buried.”
Apparently Lieutenant Lau, firefighter Frank Doyle and trial firefighter Larry McDonald, Jr., all of Engine 26, were on the third floor of the paper warehouse. They were operating a 1½-inch hand-line when the hose snagged. They were putting out fire on the floor, pallets and whatever material was stored up there. The roof had burned away and the top floor was open to the sky. Doyle went back a few steps to free the line and while doing this, a 10- to 15-foot section of an interior wall, six feet in height, collapsed on top of Lau and McDonald. When Doyle turned around, they were gone. The wall hit them and fell, causing the third floor to collapse into the second floor. The second floor then collapsed into the first floor. There were several firefighters working on the second floor near the area that collapsed and they narrowly missed getting killed or injured.
Welcher returned from the hospital and was working in an exposure when the dreaded news came that three firefighters were trapped. He recalls: “It was pitch black in the paper company. The 14 or 15 firefighters were digging through all the bricks and paper. I started to help pull the stuff out. Things kept falling down. It was all wet. Every time we took something out, more came down on top of us. Fire was all around, on the top and in the next section of the building. The fire was rolling in the next room and everyone was afraid the wall adjacent to where we were working was going to come down on top of us. We were advised the fire was rolling in the next room and we might have to leave. The guys digging said, ‘Please don’t order us out, chief. Our buddies are in there. Just keep the fire off us. We’re going to get them out of here.’ They had lines going in the next room. When the floors collapsed there were big piles of paper burning and bricks hanging. We had to take a hand-line to keep those off us while we worked.”
Says Rail: “Ironically, the third man we were looking for was right there digging with us. Nobody knew it until I asked the deputy chief to ascertain who had responded. He questioned the equipment operator of Engine 26 who related four men had arrived with the engine. Somebody kept asking, ‘Where’s Frank Doyle?’ They knew the lieutenant and they had found the trial firefighter’s helmet. They knew two of them were buried and they couldn’t find the third one. Then all of a sudden, Doyle says. ‘Here I am,’ and he was right beside the guys digging, trying to find the men from his company. He must have been in shock and didn’t hear us calling his name.”
Continues Rail: “At one time, there were probably 60 to 75 firefighters in the area digging. While digging, a ruptured three-inch sprinkler pipe gushed right onto the debris, hindering operations.” Adds Welcher: “It took nearly 40 minutes to find the missing men. We could see right up to the sky and in between the floors and how everything had slid down. We had some ropes tied around some pallets and beams so they wouldn’t fall. We couldn’t use a shovel because the stuff was so soggy and heavy. The area where the guys could get in was sloped where all the stuff had come down. To be effective, only six or seven guys could dig at one time.”
Continues Welcher: “All of a sudden we found a boot, then a hand and then McDonald. Once we found the first firefighter, Lau was found underneath him. Then, everybody was ordered out of the building and to report to their rigs for a head count.”
Concludes Welcher: “It made me proud because everyone worked and refused to leave the site until their comrades were found.”
Adds Rail: “Everybody hung together until they dug them out one way or another. No one worried about his own life. No one worried about the condition of the building even though it could come down at any time.”
After the firefighters were removed from the debris, units held a defensive operation throughout the night and into the next day. Most of the companies in the city operated at the fire during its height or to relieve others. The past two times Detroit firefighters died in the line of duty occurred when fighting fires in vacant buildings. The cause of this fire is still under investigation. Willie J. Clemons, 36, was charged with three counts of first-degree murder and arson after first naming someone else for starting the fire. Clemons apparently confessed to starting the fire.
Killed in the fire were Lieutenant Paul Schimeck, 46, a 26-year veteran, Lieutenant David Lau, 58, a 31-year veteran and trial firefighter Larry McDonald, Jr., 20. McDonald was to receive his badge as a firefighter on March 23, after a four-month, on-the-job training program.
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