Columnist: Surreal silence falls over fire scene on Detroit’s west side

This house at 1668 Virginia Park has caught fire twice over the past year.
This house at 1668 Virginia Park has caught fire twice over the past year.

By Tracey Morris
Motor City Muckraker

The crunch of metal and fiberglass has an unmistakable sound. So does a crowd of people yelling, “STOP! STOP! STOP!”

It happened so suddenly, I didn’t even have a chance to grab my phone and take pictures. First came the drop in water pressure while I washed dishes. Next was the cacophony of fire engines idling outside my front door. Then, just as I walked out on my porch to see what was happening, came the crushing impact, a sound that cut through the relative silence of a scene that should’ve been more chaotic than it actually was.

My neighbor’s car was parked on the south side of the 1600 block of Virginia Park, just 10 blocks south of the start of the 1967 riot. No other cars were parked around it, but the street was clogged with DFD rigs. I, along with neighbors yelling in vain, watched as a fire engine slowly but steadily backed into the front left fender of his Buick sedan, crumpling it the way one might crush a pop can.

We’d all gathered in the rainy dusk to see the firefighters assemble outside a long abandoned house about four doors down from me. Last summer, there was a basement fire in the empty but structurally sound yellow brick duplex. This time, the fire was on the top floor.

About ten firefighters stood outside the house, leaning on their rigs, stepping over hoses, holding axes, watching and waiting for orders to do something. A couple of firefighters came in and out of the building, climbing down a metal ladder propped up against the top porch.

No one ran, or shouted into radios, or moved the residents of the duplex next door off their porch, watching grey smoke ooze out an opening from the involved building’s roof. There was no urgency until a fire engine (former Engine #30) backed into a car parked seven houses away from the fire. Even then, the urgency came from the bystanders rather than the uniformed workers on the scene, and that urgency was muted.

The car’s owner came down from his porch, walking toward the rig, which finally came to a stop in front of my driveway. The firefighter driving the rig, dressed in navy blue and wearing a DFD baseball cap and an expression that seemed to be an embarrassed smirk, hopped out of the driver’s seat and walked casually toward the fire.

The car’s owner took pictures of his vehicle and the rig that damaged his car. He then strolled over to the group of waiting firefighters to talk to the man responsible for the accident. As they talked, there were no raised voices or heightened emotions. An older man in a Chrysler sedan with a DFD emblem in the rear window pulled up. Without speaking to anyone, he casually got out of his vehicle and began taking pictures of the fire scene, the rigs on site, and the stricken car. Just as quietly, he got back in his car and nearly backed into a rig himself before leaving.

A Detroit Police squad car turned onto the block, methodically weaving through the tangle of fire trucks and onlookers and kept going as the firefighters began packing up their equipment. The owner of the damaged car slowly ambled back to his house. The driver of the rig slowly walked back to the vehicle, stopping to talk to an official who pulled up in a DFD Chief’s vehicle. Another DPD squad car showed up. A smiling officer with a very curly blond ponytail got out and took reports from the car’s owner and the firefighter.

It was only then that calls could be heard going out over police and fire radios. The robotic voices of the dispatchers cut through the relative silence of a scene that should’ve been more chaotic than it actually was.

The crowd dispersed so suddenly, it was hard to believe anything happened. The firefighters drove away one at a time. The neighbor with the damaged car went back on his porch to hang out with his friends. The other neighbors silently went back into their houses. The ponytailed officer, smiling as she walked away from the driver of the fire engine, closed her notebook, tucking it into her pocket before driving off. The damaged house went back to being a damaged, likely unsalvageable dwelling on my block.

Everything went back to a quiet normal.

The stillness that comes with waiting for the next thing to happen has an unmistakable sound.

Tracey Morris

Tracey Morris is the author of, “You Said You Wanted to See Me Naked: An Autobiographical Poem Cycle.” Her work has recently been published by Rust Belt Chic Press, and she was a finalist in the 2013 Springfed Arts Writing Contest.