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.