A spectacular five-alarm fire raged through an industrial complex in Hamtramck, Michigan, on August 6, 1984, causing $9 million in damages. The size of the structure, severe water problems and the hazardous and flammable contents of the building forced firefighters to withdraw from defensive positions after the fire grew completely out of control. The blaze destroyed over 100 classic cars stored in the complex.
The Hamtramck Fire Department is comprised of 39 career firefighters who protect 21,000 people in a two-square-mile area from one central station. During 1983 the department responded to 2100 alarms, 1600 of which were EMS calls.
At 7:14 A.M. on Monday, August 6, Hamtramck Fire Headquarters received a phone alarm for a fire in the large warehouse at 3001 Miller. The fire was discovered by an employee arriving for work in the building.
The four-story, heavy timber complex was built in the early 1900s. Irregularly shaped, the building measured 1100 feet long and 700 feet wide. It consisted of two separate structures attached by a brick passageway between the third floors, enabling vehicles to be driven from one building to the other.
Inside the structure were several commercial occupancies, one of which con- tained large tanks of aqueous and anhydrous ammonia plus many small cylinders of the same gas. More than 100 classic cars were also kept in the buildings,including Bentleys, Rolls Royces, Studebakers and elaborate, restored cars over 50 years old. Machinery, chemicals and props for commercials were stored in the warehouse as well.
Engine 4, Quad 2 and Rescue I responded on the first alarm with a total of seven firefighters. Recalls firefighter Sam Solomon: “As soon as we left the firehouse we could see the smoke. When we arrived all we could see was thick black smoke coming from an area that was inaccessible to us. We used two ladders to get on a small flat roof and stretched a 2 1/2-inch line up there.” The lieutenant called for mutual aid and for all off-duty firefighters.
The fire had started in the northwest corner of the structure. The first hoseline was directed at the visible fire, but firefighters couldn’t tell how far back the flames were extending. Notes Solomon:
“We had the 2 1/2″ going, and the water was basically evaporating before it was doing anything.” Minutes later Highland Park firefighters joined the Hamtramck firefighters and stretched an additional line to the roof. Explains Solomon: “I don’t think we were up there for 20 minutes when it really started to look ugly. From where our ladder was located, we weren’t sure we could get back to it.”
Continues Solomon: “A few minutes after we arrived the explosions started. They said you could feel them two to three miles away, so you know how we felt. It got to the point where we couldn’t see each other on the roof because of the smoke. After each explosion we were ducking shrapnel, which was falling everywhere. We called for another ladder and that’s when Detroit arrived.”
Recalls Detroit firefighter Glenn Morris of Ladder l6: “We arrived, set up for ladder pipe operations “We arrived, set up for ladder pipe operations and waited for water. We didn’t get water right away and that’s when the barrels started to blow. The tillerman and I threw up a 20-foot ladder to get the guys off the roof. We got them down and it got so bad we couldn’t retrieve the ladder. The explosions ripped out sides of the buildings, blew out windows and scattered debris everywhere. “Now my truck was in danger,” explains Morris. “The aerial was up, and I was positioned real close to the building. I raised the jacks six inches to clear the ground and I moved the rig with the aerial still
Hamtramck Chief Sam Dropchuk, a 17-year veteran and chief for the last four years, arrived on the scene shortly after Detroit firefighters. “On arrival we had total involvement of the second floor in the rear, and shortly thereafter it went through the roof,” says Dropchuk. “The building was sprinklered but there was some concern about whether the sprinkler system was turned on in that portion of the building.” Adds he: “It was totally out of hand when we arrived.”
Firefighters reported hearing water motor gongs, and, as far as officials can ascertain, the sprinkler system was working. Notes Dropchuk: “When we arrived the fire was beyond control of the I sprinklers; too many heads had popped to contain the fire.”
Detroit was setting up an aerial ladder and Hamtramck’s ladder truck was ordered to position in the rear of the complex on a set of railroad tracks. “There was a 6-inch main on Miller,” says Dropchuk. “It was very small and very old, and we had so many pumpers.” To the east of the complex was an empty lot where the Champion Sparkplug Company had been located. Several yard hydrants were shut off due to construction. Hamtramck water officials were called to open the mains, and Detroit was asked to open nearby gates to increase pressure in the area.
Firefighters tried to make a stand several times, and at one point repositioned to an area between the two buildings. There was no fire showing. They were ordered to open up the building and set up for ladder pipe operations again. Detroit’s boat tender arrived and laid a 5-inch line off a 24-inch main two blocks away. But according to Morris, “Before we got water, the fire was past us.”
Recalls Detroit’s Chief of Department Elmer Chapman: “The fire was halfway through one section when I arrived. Due to the lack of water we weren’t going to stop it. Some pumpers had very low pressure and others were drawing a vacuum.”
At this point there were only two monitors with sufficient pressure to reach the building. The fire spread with lightning speed throughout the structure. “The floors were oil soaked, and the car storage didn’t help either,” explains Dropchuk. “A 100-gallon gasoline tank was also located inside the structure.” Adding to the spread of fire were several holes in the floor where machinery had been removed.
Growing in intensity, the fire traveled to the brick passageway that linked the two structures. Intense radiated heat forced firefighters to retreat and reposition further down the street.
Explains Solomon: “It was tough to get close. Every time we’d set up, we d have to break down, move back and set up again. The times we did get close we didn’t have adequate water pressure.” The 5-inch, plastic-covered hose had to be abandoned. Says Morris: “It was too hot to get it so we had to leave 1500 feet of it.” Loss of the hose cost Detroit $21,000.
Additional companies arrived from Detroit in rapid succession, including the city’s two 100-foot aerial platforms. The units were ordered to pull back and protect adjoining buildings and the small factories across the street. “That’s all we could do,” explains Chief Chapman.
Says firefighter Morris: “When the fire started to create its own winds we knew we were in trouble. The roofs of several wood-frame dwellings down the street had caught fire.” The command post had been located in front of the factories across the street from the fire building, but when the intense radiated heat developed, the command post was repositioned one block to the west. Fire had extended to several of the factories, and when companies could be freed up, they were used wherever possible.
Several hundred nearby residents were evacuated from the area to protect them from toxic fumes, possible explosions and flying shrapnel.
A gas main popped from the heat of the fire, creating more problems for firefighters. Intense heat also caused explosions in the gasoline tanks of cars stored in the building. As the fire spread through the complex it caused several major collapses, but these did not endanger firefighters. Explains Chief Dropchuk: “We didn’t worry too much about collapse because the radiant heat was so great, we didn’t get too close.”
With adequate help, exposures protected and the fire dying out after the structures had collapsed and the combustibles were consumed, the fire was declared under control at 6:01 P.M. Rail traffic behind the fire building was halted, and construction workers at the new General Motors Poletown Assembly plant a few blocks away were given the rest of the day off due to the noxious fumes which passed over the plant.
Four firefighters sustained minor injuries in the blaze. Due to the number of chemicals inside the complex, several firefighters from all three departments suffered rashes, sore throats, headaches and nausea.
“The first three days after the fire we refrained from putting out the last remnants while water samples were taken by environmental officials,” says Chief Dropchuk. “After the third day they gave us the okay to extinguish the fires.” The International Association of Firefighters sent a task force to test the firefighters for toxicity.
The entire Hamtramck Fire Department responded to the blaze, along with 25 engines, 10 ladder companies, five battalion chiefs and six manpower squads from Detroit. Several units from Highland Park also operated at the fire.
Many firefighters on the scene were impressed by the magnitude of the fire. “It was amazing to see the fire spread. I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Solomon. “Everytime we’d hook up we thought we could hold it, but we had to keep falling back.” Adds Chief Chapman: “The fire was just awesome. We knew we could knock it down but we didn’t have water. We couldn’t even get a couple of streams. We felt helpless.”
According to Dropchuk, “It was all the factors involved -rapid spread, feeding on such a large structure and water problems. We could have had another 100 firefighters at the scene, and they wouldn’t have stopped it. It had so much wood and combustibles to feed on, and the sprinklers were nonfunctional after the first 15 minutes. Everything played against us.”
Damage was estimated at $2 million to the structure and $7 million to the contents. Over $8000 of Hamtramck equipment was lost or damaged
During the post-fire investigation, a 12-year-old boy was arrested and later confessed to starting a fire in the warehouse. Apparently, he was setting fire to paper airplanes when one ignited some combustible material. The fire burned for possibly up to an hour before being discovered by an employee arriving at the complex.
“With a building of this size and age, the size of our department and the low water pressure, I don’t think it could have been stopped,” states Chief Dropchuk. “They don’t build buildings like this anymore, thank heavens! They are nightmares for fire departments.”
Hamtramck firefighters have responded to fires at the old warehouse complex several times in the past few years. A year ago a fire there was extinguished by the plant’s sprinkler system; several months ago, units were called when an ammonia tank ruptured, filling the structure with noxious fumes. Just two weeks before the August 6 blaze, a fire broke out in the building and was contained by the sprinkler system before firefighters arrived at the scene and extinguished it completely.
Detroit firefighters were also familiar with the site of the fire, having assisted Hamtramck on several occasions on mutual aid, though never at such a serious incident as the August 6 fire. The warehouse complex is only two blocks away from the site of numerous arson fires that struck the area in the last few years. After General Motors decided to locate its new assembly plant in this area, arson fires were fought night and day in buildings slated for demolition in the Poletown area.
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The Hamtramck Fire Department dates back to February 11, 1857. When the Hamtramck Spouters organized themselves into a company known as Spouters No. Eleven. In 1883, a firehouse was built on the Northeast corner of Gratiot and Grandy Avenue by the Detroit Fire Department.
It was not until January 1903, that the Hamtramck Village President and the Clerk were authorized to enter into a contract with the Detroit Fire Department for fire protection.
The Hamtramck Fire Department was formally organized on November 16, 1914. With it’s rules and regulations established as of that period. The HFD was first located on Berres Avenue, in a two car garage on the premises of the Detroit Lumber Company. Three months later we moved to the Briggs Mfg. Company plant, on Leuschner Avenue where we occupied part of the first and second floors.
Hamtramck’s first fire alarm system was installed in March 1957. The Gamewell Fire Alarm System was put into service October 23, 1915 and was in the direct charge of the Fire Chief. Within a year, this telegraph Fire Alarm System consisted of 36 street boxes and 6 school boxes; these were in the charge of the Master Mechanic and firemen. A number of fire boxes were placed inside of the schools, but in 1917 they were removed and placed on the streets so they would be more accessible. By 1920, the fire alarm system consisted of 75 signal boxes; 15 of which were in private industrial plants and 60 were located on the streets and in schools. There was one circuit switch board and one six circuit repeater. There was also 256 fire hydrants connected to the water mains. Two years later the number of fire hydrants increased to a total of 375.
In 1926, the City Engineer was authorized to prepare maps for the Fire Department, showing the location of all fire hydrants and boxes within the City of Hamtramck.
Only two large fires were recorded in Hamtramck’s early history: the first occurred December 16, 1919; the second occurred in 1933. With monetary losses of $80,000.00 (1919) and $135,000.00 (1933).
Martin Bishop was Hamtramck’s first fire chief. During his time the department headquarters were moved to the present Municipal Building.
With Hamtramck’s rapid growth, further expansion was necessary. In 1917, the village council adopted a resolution to build a second fire hall located at Caniff and McKay Avenue, at an estimated cost of $5,500.00; appropriation being through a bond issue. The village could not find an immediate market for the bonds; which resulted in a lack of funds, delaying the construction of Fire Hall No. 2. The village council extended the time table until May 1919 and the structure was completed that year. Fire Hall No. 3, located at Joseph Campau and Smith Street, was completed and opened in February 1922. In the fall of 1928, the Fire Department discontinued using Fire Hall No. 3 due to a newly built railroad viaduct. As the space within Fire Hall No. 2, became overcrowded due to increases in personnel, equipment and reported fires, an addition was recommended and granted. Plans and specifications were awarded, with expenditure of approximately $10,930.00.
In May 1915, Hamtramck village President made two appointments: he named Albert Reppenbager as Captain and Earl Thompson as Lieutenant. They were both stationed at Engine House No. 1. Chief Bishop’s administration covered a 5 year period; afterwards Frank C. Long was appointed to Fire Chief in 1919 and remained chief until 1922. With the establishment of Fire Hall No. 2 in 1919, Anthony Eden was appointed Captain. Upon the resignation of Captain Reppenbager in 1920, the office was succeeded by Elmer Bushway. When the position of Master Mechanic no longer existed, the position of Superintendent was created with a salary of $2,600.00 per year.
In 1921, there were further changes and promotions. The village appointed Walter Krzyzostan as Chief of the Hamtramck Fire Department with a salary of $3,500.00 per year. Charles Smith was appointed Captain of Fire Hall No. 1 and Adam Grusczynski was appointed Captain of Fire Hall No. 2. In 1923, the office of Assistant Chief of the fire department was created. Charles Smith was selected for this post, with a considerable increase in salary.
Back in 1926, the editor of the Polish Daily Record wrote: “With the appointment of L.A. Koscinski, as Public Director of Safety; the spirit of cooperation and efficiency has greatly increased. The new director has taken a personal interest in the men and at the same time demanded strict adherence to the organization of Hamtramck’s Fire Department with “Rules and Regulations” which he has compiled and printed for the conduct and guidance of the men.” Since then, it may be stated that this spirit of co-operation and efficiency has been fostered and no one is more alert to the co-operation and efficiency of his department than the present chief. Chief Edward J. Sawtell who at the time of this writing is installing a reading library in each fire hall. With the reading material consisting primarily of books and literature pertaining to fire fighting and its prevention. So that each fireman who desires, may become as well informed in fire fighting efficiency as his chief. Prior to this such books and literature were kept solely in the chief’s office.
The personnel of 1926, consisted of 47 pipemen and laddermen, 9 motor engineers, 4 watchmen, 3 captains, 5 lieutenants, 1 chief and his assistant. Fourteen years later in 1940 the department made a few changes and added several employees. On the force was 1 chief, 2 senior & 6 junior captains, 7 lieutenants, 1 senior & 13 junior motor engineers, 48 pipemen & laddermen and 6 professional firemen. The department also had 3 telegraph operators. There was a total of 78 men.
As fire fighting increased so did the equipment needed. In 1859 there was 1 Peerless hose wagon drawn by 2 horses by 1915 there was 1 Aherns-Fox steamer, 1 Peerless hose wagon and 1- 55 foot ladder truck. By January 1922 there were 2 engine companies and 1 ladder company in service; in addition to 1- 700 gallon steam fire engine, 1 Packard hose and chemical truck were in reserve.
Modern and up-to-date equipment has been secured, whereas, the present (1940) equipment of Fire House No. 1 consist of 1 Seagraves 750 gallon pumper, 1 American La France 1,200 gallon pumper and the chiefs car. In 1919, Fire House No. 2 originally started with 1 Aherns-Fox steamer and 1 hose and chemical truck; they have since gradually increased their equipment
The department had a combined total of following equipment in service at that time: 1 Seagraves Triple Combination 750 gallon pumping engine – carrying 1,200′ of 2 1/2″ hose and 2-30 gallon & 1-40 gallon chemical tanks and 7 men. 1 Aherns-Fox 700 gallon pumping engine motor propelled on a Peerless truck, 1 motor propelled hose and chemical truck carrying 1,000′ of 2 1/2″ hose and 9 men, 1 well equipped service truck carrying 7 men and 1 ambulance. On October 1,1919, the platoon system of24-hour periods was adopted. The equipment of the Hamtramck Fire Department, as now stands, compares favorably with the best in the country.
The salaries of the fire department in 1915, may seem small when compared with present day salaries. The annual salaries of 1915 were: chief $1,500, captain $1,200, lieutenant $1,100, engineers & general repairmen $1,200, drivers $1,100, pipemen & laddermen $1,000. In 1917 the men were given an increase in salary, which practically doubled their salaries of 1915, In May 1920 they received an additional raised The superintendent of Fire Apparatus received $2,600. A year later the chief’s salary was fixed at $3,500 annually and all captains received $2,500 annually. In 1923 the office of assistant chief was created, with an annual salary of $2,800. Subsequent years, including 1940, were not available.
Persons contemplating membership in the fire department, must be a citizen of the United States, a resident of Hamtramck for 1 year of more preceding appointment, able to read and write the English language, never have been convicted of a crime, not over 30 years old or under 21 years old, be at least 5’7″ in height, weigh not less than 140 pounds, steady habits, good character and pass a general examination. Promotions available to those with good personal conduct on and off of duty.
Leave of absence may be granted by the department chief. All equipment must be kept in good order for any emergency.
Provide their own uniforms within 60 days and perform all duties for his rank and title.
By Stephen A. Majewski, Mayor of Hamtramck (1926); “Doubtless our city enjoys freedom from destructive fires, equal to that of any city in Michigan population considered. Yet in Michigan last year, more than $17,000,000. worth of property was destroyed by fire.” In some degree our city has contributed to that lost. Removal from local tax rolls of the value lost in these fires shift assessments of exactly that amount of city taxes of other local properties which remain. Thus, the evil strikes everywhere. Statisticians say, that 76% of all fires are preventable.”
The Hamtramck Charter provides that an efficient fire department must be maintained for the protection of people and property therein and provide the necessary equipment and apparatus, with an ample supply of water to enable the department to extinguish fires. The chief is appointed by the Director of Public Safety. Salaries are based on title and position.
Any member of the Hamtramck Fire Department who has served 25 years on the force, either for the village and/or the city is entitled to a retirement pension. A disability provision is provided. With ample provision for his widow and children.
Under Fire Chief Edward J. Sawtell’s administration, the first retirement was that of Captain Adam Gruszczynski with 25 years of service. The record system prior to 1934 was very meager. Since then, much has been done to bring up the record and statistical division to a point where it is second to none in the State of Michigan.
At this time they are taking a survey and making a floor plan of all basements in the various business establishments of Harntrarnck. When completed (the number one fire truck responding to all fires) will have a complete indexed card system file, showing (by blue print) the layout of all basements.
The W.P.A. Fire Prevention Education’s Survey, has also done much towards creating vital statistics, by giving full data regarding all homes in the city. Simultaneously distributing 12,500 posters and leaflets to residents of Hamtramck as a safety measure. Films were made and shown to adults and children in various schools, churches and theaters.
In 1938 the Michigan Fire Inspection Bureau, awarded Fire Chief J.M. Griffin the “Paxton Mendelssohn Trophy”; with the distinction of operating the best Fire Department in Southern Michigan.
A communication was received from the Michigan Workers Alliance of Lansing, that as a result of the W.P.A. Fire Prevention project in the City of Hamtramck, the Underwriters have reduced premiums 35%.
The following list is of past and present Hamtramck Fire Chiefs, since the incorporation of the City of Hamtramck.
Martin Bishop 1914-19
Frank C. Long 1919-1922
Walter J. Krzyzoston 1922-1933
Henry P. Gelinski 1932-1934
Edward J. Sawtell 1934-1937
John M. Griffin 1937-1939
Edward J. Sawtell 1939-1940
Samuel J. Dropchuk 1980-2000
Gerald Penkszik 2000-2001
James Szafarczyk 2001-2008
Steven Paruk 2008-2011
Paul Wilk 2012-2016