Detroit Firefighter Killed in Vacant House Fire

Nov. 17, 2008
A Detroit firefighter was killed when the roof of an abandoned house collapsed on him Saturday morning.

Syri Harris stood in the cavernous Community Christian Fellowship church Sunday afternoon, wearing her husband Walter's Detroit Fire Department jacket -- too big for her -- and clutching a sorrow-soaked washcloth.

She was at the east-side church not necessarily to attend services, but to determine if it could fit the 3,500 people expected to attend her husband's funeral.

The 37-year-old firefighter from Sterling Heights died Saturday morning when the roof of a vacant home at Kirby and Sheridan caved in. Later that day, Harris, a Community Christian Fellowship elder, was supposed to mentor a 12-year-old boy, donate blood and volunteer at a special church vendor fair.

Investigators say the 5 a.m. blaze, which also caused minor injuries to four other firefighters, was arson.

Near the makeshift shrine of a bouquet and potted flowers the color of flames, Michigan Arson Prevention Committee posters pasted on the tan-brick home offered a reward of up to $5,000 for information about the fire. Snowflakes fell on the shrine like teardrops from heaven, while real tears were shed at the church.

"The city needs more firefighters. We need to get rid of more abandoned homes. We need more police officers to stop arsonists," Harris' 36-year-old widow said. "No anger. I miss my hubby."

Syri Harris surveyed the church and greeted those offering condolences, deciding that the church wouldn't be big enough for all of the friends and relatives expected to come say good-bye to the man she fell in love with at Detroit's East Bethlehem Lutheran School: She was in kindergarten, he in first grade.

Her father-in-law and one of her sons, also clad in DFD jackets, waited patiently.

"He loved to wear different types of uniforms; that really excited him," said Walter Harris' father, who has the same name. "He loved his job. He loved dealing with people, period. He was a son every father could be proud of. I know I am very proud."

Patrick Harris solemnly recalled recent memories of his father, including how his dad taught him to fish this past summer, and how he'd comforted the Sterling Heights High School wide receiver after losing his last game.

At Sunday services, members of Community Christian Fellowship remembered Walter Harris, who was known not only for his volunteer work, but also for his cooking and love of motorcycles. He rode to several firefighters' funerals in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to Syri Harris.

"We played a clip of Bible study Tuesday," church director Jackey Wilson said of the clip that featured Walter Harris. " 'You have to be ready to serve at all times. If I were to die, I know where I'm going.'... He talked about being a firefighter, about being the first to go in."

Harris reportedly was the first to go into the abandoned home early Saturday that took his life.

The 17-year fire department veteran also is survived by five other sons, James Hill-Harris, Robert Burton Harris, Caleb Harris, Walter Harris and Christian Harris; his mother, Minnie Harris; a brother, Sylvester Lamon Harris; a sister, Sonya Caldwell, and two grandchildren.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Funeral Arrangements

Visitation will be held from 4 to 9 p.m. Thursdsay, November 20 at Community Christian Fellowship, 8131 E. Outer Dr. Detroit, MI. 48213

Funeral services will be held the following day at 10 a.m. at Second Ebenezer Church, 14601 Dequindre St. Detroit, MI. 48212.

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