When Detroit firefighters arrived to a reported fire at an abandoned warehouse on March 12, 1987, they spotted light smoke wafting from third-story windows.
But what appeared to be a routine fire would become one of the most tragic, notorious blazes in the city’s history, killing three firefighters and injuring many more, just days before the warehouse was to be demolished.
On Sunday, the 30th anniversary of the fire, the public and members of the Detroit Fire Department gathered at the site of the fire to remember Lt. David Lau (Engine Co. 26), Lt. Paul Schimek (Engine Co. 10) and firefighter Larry McDonald Jr. (Engine Co. 26). The building, at the Jeffries Service Drive just south of West Warren, was demolished soon after the fire.
The fire broke out shortly after 3 p.m. Firefighters sprinted up the stairs to the third floor to extinguish what appeared to be small, intentionally set fires.
“Very suddenly, the conditions on the third floor changed dramatically,” according to a Homeland Security report at the time. “A heavy front of smoke and flame rolled over on the interior crews, forcing them to abandon their positions and retreat toward the stairs.”
Most of the eight firefighters were injured from burns but managed to escape. A lieutenant, however, lost his grip while hanging out of a window and fell headfirst on the street below. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
The warehouse buildings were full of trash, rags, clothes and other flammable material.
Nearly three hours later, firefighters were back in one of the warehouse buildings when a wall collapsed. Two firefighters fell through two floors and were trapped in a pile of heavy debris on the first floor.
For more than an hour, firefighters dug out bricks and debris by hand. But by the time they were able to remove the two firefighters, they were dead. One was a 20-year-old probationary firefighter.
The fire burned for nearly 24 hours, gutting two enormous warehouse buildings.
After an investigation, Homeland Security said other firefighters were “lucky to survive.”
Police later arrested a suspect, who was charged with three counts of homicide.
The Detroit Fire Department learned some tough lessons that day. The federal investigation revealed that firefighters weren’t familiar enough with the dangers inside the building.
“Vacant buildings often present an attractive nuisance to members of society who engage in the crime of arson, either for profit or for more unpredictable motives,” the federal fire report reads. “Where these problems exist, companies should make a priority of pre-fire planning and familiarize themselves with access, contents, special hazards, and hidden traps that may be critical in a firefighting operation.”
Deputy Fire Commissioner Dave Fornell said the department is now more involved with pre-planning so that firefighters are more aware of the dangers in big vacant buildings.
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.