Lansing’s 72 Hours of Fire

Lansing’s 72 Hours of Fire

Lansing, Mich., fire fighters endured their toughest 72 hours in 20 years when two multiple-alarm fires destroyed a church, two warehouses and an aerial ladder truck. In addition, six fire fighters plunged into the blazing basement of the church when the main floor collapsed, and they survived only because the floor section shielded them from the worst of the flames.

“Lots of smoke, first floor,” was the report from the first-in company responding to a fire at the 96-year-old Plymouth Congregational Church at Allegan and Townsend Streets, across from the State Capitol Building. The first alarm, at 12:43 p.m. last February 25, brought in two engines, two aerial ladders, a squad and Deputy Chief Robert S. Kennedy. Upon arrival at the 50 X 120-foot, brick, mill construction church, Kennedy immediately ordered a second alarm.

When men got into the basement from an entry on the east side of the church, they could not see any fire because of the thickness of the smoke, but they could hear the snapping and crackling of burning timbers toward the north end (front) of the building. Kennedy and his men got out of the building to exchange filter-type masks for self-contained breathing apparatus. The deputy chief then ordered a third alarm struck and requested units carrying high expansion foam.

Floor collapses

Kennedy then went into the church through the northwest entrance along with Captain George Hinman, Lieutenants Bruce Miller and Charles Zerkle, and Fire Fighters Thomas Jensen and Lawrence Devlin. They had advanced about 10 feet with a lVfc-inch line when the floor collapsed and pitched them into the basement.

Kennedy grabbed Hinman just in time to prevent him from being trapped under the edge of the floor. The deputy chief then worked his way to the top of the rubble and grasped the edge of the doorsill. Pulling himself up, his shouts attracted the attention of a policeman, who rounded up some fire fighters, other policemen, bystanders and reporters to pull the trapped men out of the basement. All six fire fighters were taken to hospitals for treatment of severe bruises, lacerations, burns and smoke inhalation.

Kennedy later stated, “If the floor had broken up in smaller pieces, we would have burned to death.”

Fortunately, the large section of floor on which the fire fighters found themselves after the collapse partially shielded them from the flames in the basement.

Chief Donald H. Burnett ordered all men out of the church and called for the fourth and fifth alarms to be struck. He then called in Ladder 6 to set up a ladder pipe at the south end of the building, madder Companies 1 and 2 also used their ladder pipes on the west side and front of the church.

High expansion foam was put into the church, but it was of little value because of the fire inside partitions and false ceilings.

About 2:30 p.m., the three-story roof collapsed. Fire raced up through the six-story steeple and broke through near the top. Burnett ordered the relocation of apparatus operating next to the building, and this saved a 1250-gpm pumper and a 100-foot aerial when the steeple collapsed at 3:06 p.m.

Concentrated efforts to protect exposures with deluge sets and hand lines were successful, and the fire, which was confined to the church, was extinguished some 12 hours after the first alarm. The loss, which included a pipe organ and a music library, was estimated at $1.2 million.

Flames consume sash and door warehouse in Lansing, Mich.Ladder pipe works on Plymouth Congregational Church fire

After the fifth alarm, Burnett special-called five engine companies, which made a total of 11 engines on the fireground. In addition, there were three aerial ladders, one squad, two generator-compressor units, three fire department and three private ambulances, and more than 150 fire fighters at this fire. Mutual aid companies from Grand Ledge, Eaton Rapids, Holt, Mason and Meridian and Delta Townships filled in at Lansing fire stations. A mobile communications command post was set up by Civil Defense Director James A. Holcomb to help coordinate fire fighting operations and crowd control.

Fire Marshal Phillip K. Alber and members of the fire prevention bureau concluded after an investigation that an electric light ceiling fixture in the northwest corner of the church was responsible for the fire. They reported that there was less than ¼-inch clearance between four bulbs and a combustible ceiling, which was ignited when the bulbs were left on for more than five days. The fire apparently smoldered for some time before being discovered.

Friday, the day after the church fire, was a routine day, but Saturday, February 27, brought winds that gusted up to 50 mph.

Fire starts in warehouse

At 6:48 p.m. Saturday, two engines, an aerial ladder and a squad responded to an alarm at the three and five-story Terzian warehouse at 1301-1307 North Turner Street. Upon arrival, Deputy Chief Joseph I. Burtraw ordered a second alarm transmitted, and by 7 p.m., 12 minutes after the first alarm, he had called for a fifth alarm and for all off-duty fire fighters.

Ladder 5, first-in apparatus, set up on the north side of the warehouse, from which large volumes of smoke were issuing, to operate a ladder pipe, and Engine 2 stretched parallel lines from the ladder to a hydrant on North Turner Street. At the same time, Engine 6 laid two lines from the south side to a hydrant at North Turner and Clinton Streets.

The Terzian warehouse was of brick mill construction with 12 X 12-inch timber beams and supports. Roughly L-shaped, the building was 302 feet long on the north side and 228 feet on the west side. Part of the building was used as a furniture store and the rest was used for rental storage. The sprinkler system in the building had been out of service for several years.

Immediately after Burtraw had been in the building and found it full of smoke, flames appeared on the west side. A heavy gust of wind pushed the flames back inside, and there was a back draft that blew out windows throughout the building.

Ladder truck burns

Flames erupted from the north side windows on all five floors and reached out to Ladder 5, which was more than 60 feet from the warehouse. Before the operator could reach the turntable, the apparatus burst into flames and Captain Jack Cushman ordered the crew to run for their lives. The apparatus fire was so intense that the driver’s helmet, still inside a compartment, melted.

As his crew reached North Turner Street, Cushman ordered Lieutenant Victor Rairgh of Engine 2 to shut down and move his pumper. A trailer between the Terzian warehouse and Ladder 5 also was burned, as were two trailer trucks on North Turner Street, east of the fire.

The deputy chief ordered companies responding to the extra alarms to protect exposures east of the Terzian warehouse. The major exposure was the one-story 150 X 50-foot Grand Rapids Sash & Door Company warehouse, the roof of which was already burning.

When Chief Burnett reached the fireground, he ordered a general alarm and a mutual aid call, and the civil defense director again set up a mobile communications post. I he mutual aid call brought in apparatus from East Lansing, Grand Ledge, Eaton Rapids, Holt, Mason, Portland, Dewitt, St. Johns, Laingsburg, Bath and the Townships of Lansing, Meridian, Delta, Dewitt, Windsor and Benton. The National Guard at Grand Ledge sent an airport crash truck with a 1500-gpm turret gun.

Master streams halt fire

To halt the eastward advance of the fire, Burnett ordered companies to patrol Center Street, a block east of North Turner Street, and protect exposed residences. He also had fire fighters make a stand along the railroad tracks east of the Grand Rapids Sash & Door warehouse. They knocked down the fire with master streams at that point. There were spot fires in Center Street residences which were quickly extinguished with a total loss of about $1,000. Water curtains between houses were effective in this area.

The one-story Staszuck building, between the two warehouses, received only moderate damage to two exterior walls exposed to the flames.

During the height of the fire, the intensity was so great that air being drawn into the blaze created winds that were estimated to range from 70 to 100 mph. Flaming debris rained over a six-block area, and squads and grass fire trucks were kept busy putting out spot fires. Some residents used garden hoses to protect their homes. For two days after the fire, companies were wetting down the ruins.

The fire that destroyed the two warehouses was fought by 375 fire fighters with 28 pieces of apparatus and many master streams, as well as hand lines. The loss was estimated at $1.2 million. Although the cause was not determined, the fire marshal reported that the fire probably started on the second floor of the south end of the Terzian warehouse.

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