When firefighters arrived at a block-long burning factory on Detroit’s east side a week ago, they had no idea what they were about to witness.
They found three separate fires spreading across wooden pallets in a three-story and five-story building at the former Fisher Body Plant No. 10. Inside the reinforced concrete and brick factories, firefighters tried to hose down the fires on the morning of Feb. 5.
But the water pressure was weak, and the buildings contained a highly flammable material used to laminate particle boards, interim Fire Commissioner Jonathan Jackson told Motor City Muckraker on Monday.
“Demolition engineers visited the scene and advised that the building was in danger of imminent collapse,” Jackson said.
“Our firefighters did all they could to save this structure. Our firefighters made several attempts to aggressively battle this fire from the interior. Their heroic efforts were not successful because of the volume of fire and combustible contents.”
The buildings are owned by Palmer Promotional Products, which makes displays for advertising and marketing. They were built in the mid-1910s with reinforced concrete, an invention of famed Detroit architect Albert Kahn’s to withstand fires.
But intense, prolonged heat can cause even the strongest concrete to break apart and collapse, Jackson pointed out. And that’s exactly what started to happen late last week.
It also was difficult to fight the blaze from aerial ladder trucks because of the layout of the buildings and the tiny windows.
On Tuesday afternoon, only hours after Jackson responded to our questions, the simmering fire reignited following another partial collapse. A firefighter sustained serious leg injuries while trying to contain the fire when a wall crumbled onto him. The collapse also damaged a ladder truck.
“The safety of our employees is our primary concern,” Jackson said.
It’s still unclear what started the fires.
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“The cause and origin of this fire are still under investigation,” Jackson said. “However, we will not be sending our arson investigators into a structure that could possibly collapse.”
Sections of the buildings had sprinklers but they were not working during the fire, Jackson said.
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.