Detroit’s Fatal Warehouse Fire
At 7:30 on a late February morning two weeks before he A died, Lieutenant Paul Schimeck was in an old Detroit firehouse, chatting over a cup of coffee. With 16 men present from two shifts, there were several conversations going on. Someone mentioned the huge, old warehouse over on Jeffries and Hancock. They’d had a couple of small fires there, and although it was filled with bales of rags, it seemed to be abandoned.
Everyone was listening now to the one conversation; two lieutenants were going off duty, but they stayed a little longer. The conversation turned to creating a prefire plan for the warehouse, and Lt. Schimeck suggested taking Engine Co. 10 and Ladder Co. 4 over there that day. The captain agreed, and wanted to include Engine Co. 31 and Squad Co. 4, because they’re scheduled to be first in.
After the usual daily routine of recordkeeping, housework, and food preparation, the 5th Battalion chief was called and gave permission to leave quarters for a preplan.
Engine Co. 10 and Ladder Co. 4 proceeded to the location, where they met Engine Co. 31 and Squad Co. 4. They grouped near the building, noting the mill construction, the heavy fire load, and interior safety problems. They discussed exterior access and made sketches of the building. Everyone agreed that this building would present problems in case of fire.
The companies returned to their respective quarters, recorded the trip as a training session, and advised the other shifts that they should go through the same preplanning process.
Two weeks later, on March 12, 1987, Paul Shimeck and two other firefighters were killed and 11 were injured in a fire at that same warehouse complex.
On that day, at 3:06 p.m., a fullbox-alarm assignment was dispatched to the location. The response included Engine Cos. 10, 34, and 5, Ladder Co. 9, Squad Co. 4, and Battalion Chief 5. Engine Co. 31, which should have been first in, was out of service at the department repair shop, so Engine Co. 10 was first-due.
Anatomy of a deadly fire
Front-view illustration by The Detroit News
Upon arrival, the units saw light smoke coming from a third-floor window at the southwest corner of the building. Because of the light smoke conditions, the lack of visible fire, and the fact that the building had been preplanned, the sizeup indicated it would be reasonable to enter, with proper equipment, to determine the location and extent of the fire.
Lt. Schimeck ordered his two assigned firefighters to stretch a 2½inch handline, gated down to 1½ inches, to the base of the building in preparation for raising it by a rope that he would drop from a third-floor window. This handline would be sufficient for the small rubbish fire he expected to find.
Then he entered the building with the officers and members of Squad Co. 4 and Ladder Co. 9. “Nobody is going to get hurt here,” Lt. Schimeck muttered to the brothers with him.
Using the front door, the three headed north to the stairs and climbed, checking each floor as they proceeded, then exited on the third floor by squeezing past several bales that partially blocked the doorway. They proceeded south, toward the smoke, for a distance of approximately 120 feet, carrying small tools and a hose roller and rope.
As additional units arrived, Firefighter Dennis Welcher of Engine Co. 5 ascended Ladder Co. 9’s aerial to ascertain conditions. At the same time, Sergeant Harvey Thiebert of Engine Co. 34 went up the interior stairs to see if a second hose line would be needed.
After finding the fire—which involved loose rags and several bales—Lt. Schimeck ordered the line hoisted to a west window, and just as the wye gate was placed inside, conditions began to change dramatically. The heat quickly became unbearable, and dense smoke filled the occupancy. Lt. Bob English of Squad Co. 4 noticed it first and yelled to the others, “Let’s get out of here.” By the time his words tumbled from his mouth, flashover was occurring.
Firefighter Welcher rushed to exit through a southwest window onto the aerial ladder placed there as a second means of egress. He was followed by flames moving just as fast. The seven remaining firefighters ran toward the stairs, only to be passed and cut off by flame and heavy smoke. Sgt. Thiebert, Sgt. Louis Gusoff of Ladder Co. 9, and Firefighter Donald Bynum of Squad Co. 4 tumbled into the stair enclosure. Lt. Schimeck moved into a west window about midpoint in the building. Lt. English and Firefighter Derrick Grochowski of Squad Co. 4 also found windows on the west side, but farther north. Firefighter Robert Latka of Squad Co. 4 tried to find the stairway door, but the bales of rags had blocked his way in the fire-filled room; he raced to a window on the north side.
Sgt. Thiebert had reentered the third floor to direct the others and soon found himself trapped by the window with Lt. English.
Firefighters on the ground grabbed a 40-foot ladder from Ladder Co. 9 and moved toward the trapped firefighters above. Before they could raise the ladder, Lt. Schimeck lost his grip. Striking a ledge over a doorway as he fell, he flipped upside down and struck the pavement headfirst.
The ground ladder was raised for Lt. English, who was hanging from the window by one arm. He descended, followed by Sgt. Thiebert, who had been lying on the floor below the window.
Firefighter Grochowski was moving toward the ladder along a small ledge on the building’s exterior when he, too, lost his grip and fell. Striking a large utility line on the way down slowed his fall before he struck the pavement. His shoulder and wrist were broken.
Once on the ground, Lt. English and Sgt. Thiebert helped the other firefighters there to lower the 40foot extension ladder and throw it over a six-foot fence into a yard filled with tires and other debris. Using a 12-foot extension ladder, they climbed the fence and raised the ladder to Firefighter Latka. Even as they did, he was prepared to jump because of the intense heat. But an alert engine operator directed a deck gun stream into the window, over the trapped man’s head. Firefighter Latka sped down the ladder once it was placed.
Firefighters had gathered around Lt. Schimeck, administering emergency medical care, including cardiopulmonary resuscitation—Lt. Schimeck wasn’t breathing. Ambulances weren’t yet at the scene, and injured members were rushed to the hospital by department vehicles.
Emergency room physicians pronounced Paul Schimeck dead on arrival.
(Photos by William Tweedie)
Seeing the flashover that sent firefighters fleeing through the windows, the battalion chief had ordered a second alarm and, shortly after, a third alarm.
Fire spread fast throughout the third floor, and firefighters rushed to vacate the front of the building for fear of collapse. They concentrated on the southern exposure, which was separated from the fire building by a 20-foot-wide alley that provided the only entrance to the rear of either building. The exposure building was an occupied, three-storv, mill-constructed warehouse protected with fire walls and sprinklers and measuring approximately 36 by 190 feet.
Inside the exposure
The roof and cockloft of exposure 4 quickly caught fire. Flames spread across the roof and in the space between the roof and the sprinkler line. Radiant heat ignited window frames and contents on all three floors. While aerial ladder towers were used to control the roof fire, interior attack lines extinguished fires not put out by the overtaxed sprinkler system. The transmission of fourth and fifth alarms brought additional equipment to the scene.
These operations appeared to be successful, but unbeknownst to the firefighters, similar ignition occurred in the rear of this exposure, beyond a fire wall at the middle of the building. The roof ignited and radiant heat through the windows started fires in the interior.
Unfortunately, the building’s rear half was out of the reach of the aerial towers’ exterior streams, and the sprinkler system had little effect. Before interior lines could be stretched, the entire section was fully involved in fire.
Access through the alley was discounted as too dangerous. Once the fire self-vented by burning through the roof, the horizontal spread was alleviated. The fire wall at the middle of the building kept the fire from progressing to the front, and interior lines in the front portion of the building aided in control.
All firefighters must be constantly aware of flashover possibilities. This is especially true in turn-ofthe-century, high-ceilinged structures, because flame spread and rapid heat buildup that forecast a flashover aren’t readily discernible in structures with 12-to 15-foot ceilings.
Stability of fire structure walls must be constantly monitored. A false sense of security can occur if the collapse potential of bearing and nonbearing walls is measured only by obvious physical signs such as distortion, cracks, and smoke and water passing through masonry. The intensity of the fire and the amount of time during which the walls have been exposed must also be taken into account.
There’s really no such thing as a “simple” job. Size-up and awareness must be constant and ongoing. All fires have the potential for tragedy. What started as a simple rubbish fire resulted in the loss of three firefighters and injuries to 11 more.
Lt. David Lau, Firefighter Frank Doyle, and Trial Firefighter Larry McDonald, Jr., all from Engine Co. 26, were manning a lV2-inch overhaul line on the third floor. With the front roof burned off, they seemed to be in a safe position. Lt. Lau ordered Firefighter Doyle to pull more line to reach the fire wall at the middle of the building, and in doing so, Firefighter Doyle returned toward the front of the structure.
Suddenly, the top portion of the fire wall collapsed, striking Lt. Lau and Trial Firefighter McDonald. It brought down the third and second floors and crashed into the first-floor level, burying the two men beneath it.
Rescue operations began immediately, as firefighters dug by hand into the pile of debris 12 feet high.
A deputy chief maintained control o.ver the rescue operations, and portable lighting was set up. Police tried to lend the aid of their helicopter’s searchlight, but the chopper had to be lifted because it created vibrations and unfavorable air currents.
Exterior water tower operations into the building were halted for fear of further collapse, and firefighters were ordered to the second floor, where they secured the hanging flooring with ropes to prevent a secondary collapse.
The deputy chief ordered an additional full-alarm assignment transmitted to provide fresh personnel for rescue. Extra emergency medical service units were ordered to stand by for the trapped firefighters and to prepare for any injuries. Two medical helicopters were summoned to the scene, landed, and stood in readiness on the adjacent freeway.
After approximately 1½ hours, Lt. Lau and Trial Firefighter McDonald were removed from the building and taken to the hospital. They, too, were pronounced dead on arrival.
The exposure building became fully involved and the fire spread.
As soon as the fatally injured firefighters were pulled from the rubble, the deputy chief ordered all personnel to report to their apparatus for an accounting of members. All were accounted for.
During this time, the fire gained considerable headway, and the exposure building became fully involved. Fire then spread to an adjoining combination of buildings, pie-shaped in configuration and containing as many as 15 distinct sections. Apparatus had to be repositioned quickly to prevent further wall collapse from damaging equipment.
The fire continued to burn out of control until most of the buildings were leveled. Investigation continues into the cause of the fire and into the events leading to the deaths and injuries. A suspect has been arrested.
More than 5,000 firefighters from across the United States and Canada responded to a memorial service for the three firefighters who died. Detroit Fire Commissioner Melvin D. Jefferson told them, “The last alarm has not sounded for these men. Henceforth, every March 12, the alarms shall sound throughout the Detroit Fire Department, and a moment of silence will be observed in honor of Lieutenant Paul Schimeck, Lieutenant David Lau, and Firefighter Larry McDonald, Jr., and all other brave firefighters who have given their lives in service to the people of the city of Detroit.”