Briggs Fire Largest In Detroit For Over Three Decades

Briggs Fire Largest In Detroit For Over Three Decades

Helicopter view shows immense area involved and intensity. Exposed dwellings at lower left suffered only minor damage

Detroit News Photo by Howard McGraw

AN ABANDONED auto body manufacturing and painting plant caught fire in Detroit, Mich., on April 10 and before being brought under control involved the largest area of building property in over 30 years. The fastburning fire caused a quick succession of greater alarms and set a record for recorded time between transmission of a first and fifth alarm.

At 8:15 on the morning of April 10, Box 9119 at the corner of Meldrum Avenue and Benson Street tapped in at the file department communications central office. Located in what known as the near lower east side of the city, the area is made up of large industrial manufacturing plants, with small neighborhood stores, and included many modest wooden dwellings. The morning was sunny but quite chilly with a 14-mph wind out of the northwest. As the fire progressed, the wind velocity increased to 20 mph with gusts up to 28 mph.

The property involved was owned until 1958 by the Briggs Manufacturing Company. It was a five-story milltype building, 860 feet long, running north and south, by 160 feet deep on Meldrum Avenue. Flames involved the center of the second and third floors and spread rapidly in all directions.

Engine Company 18, located only three blocks away, arrived at 8:17 a.m. in charge of Sergeant Richard Woodmansee, with Ladder 10 from the same station. While still approaching the scene Sergeant Woodmansee realized the fire had already reached major proportions and immediately called for a second alarm by radio.

One minute later, at 8:18, Chief Raymond Goteleare of the Third Battalion rolled in and radioed for a third alarm. Two minutes later at 8:20 he radioed a fourth alarm. In this short space of time the entire length of all five floors was burning violently.

Deputy Chief of Department Charles Quinlan, en route to his office at headquarters, heard the original alarm and quick demand for the second alarm on his car radio. He immediately responded, arriving at 8:21, and without delay called for a fifth alarm. Just six minutes had elapsed between receipt of the first alarm and the transmission of the fifth alarm.

Chief Quinlan, realizing that the roof, floors and walls would soon col lapse, immediately gave orders that no personnel should attempt entry and that all hands remain well away. His judgment was proved sound when a wall collapsed; no firemen were injured nor apparatus damaged. However, six automobiles parked in front of the factory were completely demolished under the falling debris.

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Chief of Department Glenn Thom, arrived about the time the fifth alarm was transmitted. He was confronted with all floors of the huge factory fully involved, three other factories immediately to the east partly on fire, and six of the wooden dwellings to the west across Meldrum Avenue already scorched and smoking.

To the south across Benson Street, about 40 feet wide, stood Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church with the rectory at the rear and a parish school next to the church to the south on Meldrum Avenue. With the brisk northwest wind the church properties were in direct line of flying brands and terrific heat. The twin spires and roof of the church were already ablaze and the rectory was well involved.

Surveying the immense area of burning buildings, Chief Thom immediately ordered in seven more pumpers, three additional aerial ladders, and a reserve hose wagon mounting two fixed turret guns, and carrying 3,000 feet of 2 1/2-inch hose. These were deployed on the three accessible sides of the main fire, the dwellings around the church properties.

In all, seven aerial ladders, five with heavy-volume ladder pipes operating and the others with elevated manned lines, were employed together with 20 pumpers supplying an additional 33 hand lines and 19 lines into highvolume fixed nozzles. Approximately 25.000 feet of hose was stretched.

The original building contained floor space of 470,000 square feet. Floors were of wood, many coated with years of drippings and residue of automobile body painting operations, which assisted the rapid spread of flames.

The fire was brought under control in over two hours, but the ruins of the factory, church and rectory burned for I many hours, and wetting down and overhauling continued through the rest of the day and all night. It was well into the next evening before the last company returned to quarters.

Manpower rotation

In fires of this duration Detroit follows the practice of rotating manpower about every five to six hours. Therefore, relief engine, ladder, and squad companies, were regularly dispatched to relieve companies working. Before the last piece of apparatus returned to quarters a total of 35 engine companies, 16 ladder companies, and all seven squad companies, saw service at the fire.

The Salvation Army canteen which responds to all third or greater alarms put in many hours and served the men with gallons of coffee. Also assigned were one disaster unit, the department ambulance, with Doctors Stefani, Israel, and Horwitz; a flood light unit; two fuel tankers, which dispensed about 1,000 gallons of gasoline to the pumping engines; Fire Marshal Bernard DeCoster, and Assistant Marshal Lambert; Superintendent of Apparatus Chief Earl Smith; and his assistants; Department Photographer Mancenelli; Supervisor of Water Supply Edward Schefferly; the arson squad in charge of Chief John Quincy Adams; and Fire Commissioners Robert Adell, Oliver Nelson, the author and Commission secretary Ralph Quinn.

The factory in which the fire originated had been one of the Briggs Manufacturing Company complex and manufactured and finished automobile bodies for Chrysler Corporation. Some years ago it had been sold to a company which stripped it of all salvagable material, and cut huge holes in the floors to lower machinery. In recent years it stood abandoned and windowless, a prey for derelicts and mischievous children. It was known to have been used as a hobo jungle. The city was unable to collect taxes on it and had fenced it in but the barricades had been broken time and again. The fire marshal had inspected it many j times, and for the past five years predicted just what finally happened. He was unable to enforce demolition owing to a combination of involved tax j title procedures.

By coincidence, a previous large fire involving an even greater area of a factory property was also owned by the Briggs Manufacturing Company. It started about the same hour of the morning on April 23, 1927, but in this instance the plant was occupied and operating. Records recall most of the hundreds of employees at work at the time escaped but unfortunately 23 women employees were trapped and perished.

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