Lessons from the Fireground: Detroit (MI) Fire Department
Warehouse Fire March 12, 1987 – Three LODD
Honor, Courage and Remembrance
-Lieutenant Paul W. Schimeck, Engine 10
-Lieutenant David W. Lau, 58, Engine 26
-Probationary Firefighter Lawrence A. McDonald Jr.
On Thursday, March 12, 1987 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. 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.
The Building Complex
The north complex consisted of an L-shaped three-story warehouse with full basement, facing the frontage road of I-96, attached to a four-story warehouse on the northeast corner of the complex. A fenced-in vacant lot on the northwest corner of the property was covered with old tires. The three-story buildings were made of heavy timber construction with numerous vertical openings for freight elevators, conveyors, and stairs. The front section was 190 feet by 90 feet, divided down the middle by a firewall. The section extending east was 300 feet by 50 feet, with an intermediate firewall at the mid-point. Many of the fire doors were missing or damaged, negating any effective horizontal or vertical separations in this part of the complex. The four-story section was 230 feet by 100 feet, constructed of reinforced poured-in place concrete. The buildings were separated by a covered shipping area, approximately 20 feet wide and spanned by three crossover bridges. A railroad siding on top of a concrete viaduct ran along the south side of the three-story section at the second floor level.
The buildings had been protected by automatic sprinklers but the system was inoperative and had been partially dismantled, including removal of the sprinkler heads and the elevated storage tank. The three-story section was formerly occupied by a wiping cloth distributor and was left heavily stocked when the company went out of business. The contents included rags in bales and crates, in addition to piles of discarded clothing and materials. The bales were described as 5 feet in diameter and up to 8 feet tall, bound in burlap. Some of these rags may have been oil soaked, adding to the intensity of the fire and rapid-fire spread.
The four-story building was previously used by a division of the same company that dealt in used rags and other bulk items. It was also abandoned, fully stocked with combustible contents. Efforts to keep the abandoned property secured had been unsuccessful and transients were known to frequently occupy the buildings.
Fire companies in the area were aware of the risk and had conducted several familiarization tours of the buildings. During these tours, the hazards of open passages between floors had been noted and firefighters had moved contents to cover several floor openings they considered hazardous. At least one fire had occurred previously in the buildings and firefighters anticipated another, sooner or later. Many of the personnel responding on the first alarm had toured the building in the previous month. The property had been abandoned in 1982 and came under State control for back taxes. The City of Detroit had awarded a contract for its demolition and the contractor was scheduled to begin work within a few days after the fire.
The south complex was occupied by a paper products distribution company. This section included three-story warehouse sections and additional sections of one and two stories, forming a triangle with frontages of 320 feet along the I-96 access road, 300 feet facing the yard area, and 400 feet along the railroad embankment to the south. The railroad tracks coincided with the second floor level on the south side. The front of the paper company’s buildings had been covered with a metal façade, obscuring the age and complexity of the structures. But these factors were plainly visible from the sides and rear. The construction included steel frame and heavy timber sections, divided by several firewalls and protected by automatic sprinklers. The contents included paper and plastic products, including packing materials and consumer goods.
Examination of the scene after the fire revealed that the brick construction in both complexes was of inferior quality, presenting a high risk for early collapse. The brick work included many irregularities and no visible reinforcing with evident gaps between the double and triple courses of brick. The construction had taken place over several years resulting in complicated arrangements of buildings and many construction features that could not be seen from the exterior.
The fire was reported in the abandoned section of the complex at 1506 hours on March 12, 1987. A first alarm assignment consisting of three engine companies, one ladder company, a squad, and battalion chief was dispatched and the first due ladder company arrived within two minutes. Ladder 9, responding from its quarters at the Training Academy, one block away, had a view of the north and east faces of the buildings as they approached. They arrived, reporting a small amount of light smoke showing from the southeast corner third floor windows.
The first arriving companies had to force entry through the front doors and then make their way via an unenclosed interior stairway to the top floor. At this level they found at least two small fires in trash and rags toward the south east of the floor area. They went to a window and dropped a rope, intending to pull a 1-1/2-inch hoseline up to the third floor. The fire did not appear to be threatening at this point and the crews anticipated a quick and easy job of extinguishment.
Very suddenly, the conditions on the third floor changed dramatically. A heavy front of smoke and flame rolled over on the interior crews, forcing them to abandon their positions and retreat toward the stairs. One firefighter, looking through a doorway to the adjoining sections, reported a mass of flames approaching rapidly. There are indications that an additional fire, possibly set on a lower floor toward the middle of the east-west wing, had reached the flashover stage and was rapidly engulfing the entire third floor. A total of eight firefighters were on the third floor when the flashover occurred, forcing them to crawl back toward the stairway. Two managed to dive down the stairs and escape with hand and facial burns and other injuries. One went out a window to an aerial ladder but five could not reach the stairs and were trapped by the flashover.
The firefighters found their way to windows in the northwest quadrant of the building and called for help. One lieutenant lost his grip while hanging out a window and fell, striking a ledge at the second floor level and landing head first on the street below.
Other firefighters-initiated CPR and transported him in a fire investigator’s sedan to a hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. While a ground ladder was being raised, a second firefighter fell, striking a large telephone line and landing on the street with a fractured elbow and shoulder. Two were rescued with an extension ladder from a front window, while a master stream was used to protect another, hanging onto the sill of a window around the corner. To reach him, a short ladder had to be used to scale a chain link fence into the vacant yard and a 45 feet extension ladder was passed over and raised. All of the firefighters were wearing full protective clothing, including coats and helmets that complied with NFPA standards, leather gloves, and 3/4-length rubber boots. Most wore Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBAs) on their backs and four were able to don their facepieces as they crawled toward the stairs, including the two who fell. Several of the firefighters received first and second degree burns to their hands, wrists, thighs, and necks.
They were killed while operating at a five-alarm fire in a vacant, four-story brick warehouse, filled with oil-soaked rags from a former occupant. On arrival, firefighters found three fires involving baled rags on the top floor of the structure. As none of the fires appeared to be serious, they began to advance lines via interior stairways. Suddenly, an explosive fireball erupted, sweeping across the ceiling and over firefighters as they ran for the exits. Lieutenant Schimeck and three other firefighters were forced out of four separate windows on the fourth floor by the heavy fire involvement. Ladders were raised to the men and two were rescued, but the two others, including Lieutenant Schimeck, were not able to hold on any longer due to the heavy fire around them. One of the men dropped straight down and had his fall broken by a wire. He got up and ran away from the building with burns and a broken wrist, elbow, and shoulder. Lieutenant Schimeck let go and his head struck a third-floor ledge, which sent him cartwheeling to the pavement below, where he impacted head-first.
He died instantly of massive head injuries and a broken neck. The building then became fully involved in fire and extended across an alley to the adjacent warehouse occupied by a paper firm, which contained paper products and chemicals. About three hours after Lieutenant Schimeck’s death, Lieutenant Lau and Firefighter McDonald were working on the third floor of the paper firm, when a wall of the burning vacant warehouse next door suddenly collapsed through the roof, carrying them down to the first floor and burying them under tons of rubble. By the time their rescuers reached them, 90 minutes later, they ran out of air and died of smoke inhalation. A third firefighter, who was also trapped, was rescued and taken to the hospital.
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.
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.”
Firefighter Dennis Welcher of second-due Engine 5: “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.
Firefighter Bob Latka of Squad 4: “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.”
-Detroit Warehouse Fire- Retired Chief Louie Gusoff: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLYIPq4lSzM
-Lt. Paul Schimeck, E-10: http://www.dfdlegacy.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Schimeck-Obit.jpg
-TFF Larry McDonald: http://www.dfdlegacy.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/McDonald-Obit.jpg