Leland Hotel fire nearly turned catastrophic because of faulty standpipes

The historic Leland Hotel in Detroit. Photo by Steve Neavling

The historic Leland Hotel has earned a reputation as one of downtown Detroit’s dingiest apartment buildings.

Early Tuesday morning, the former four-star hotel with monthly rental rates as low as $400 proved it may be one of downtown’s most dangerous occupied buildings.

A fire broke out in a room on the 14th floor at 2:18 a.m. and burned for 23 minutes before firefighters were able to pump water to the spreading flames. At least two people were injured. The apartment’s standpipe system, which tall buildings are required to have so firefighters can deliver water from the fire engines to the uppers floors, failed to work.

Firefighters sprinted up 14 flights of steps with small fire extinguishers – their only weapon.

“We need more water,” one of the firefighters radioed in at 2:34 a.m., about 17 minutes after the fire was reported to 911.

Firefighters scrambled to get additional fire extinguishers before the fire spread to another room.

“The water is in the system, but I don’t know how long it will take to get there,” the chief called up to firefighters at 2:38 p.m., referring to the faulty standpipe.

Fearing the fire was about to spread, the chief called for extra manpower.

At 2:41 a.m., the standpipe finally began to send water to the 14th floor, but only momentarily.

“We’re losing a lot of pressure down here,” a firefighter said.

Luckily, firefighters were able to put out the fire, primarily with extinguishers, at 2:49 a.m.

Several people were treated at the scene for smoke inhalation.

“This was a standpipe issue, which is the hotel’s problem,”  said Kieyona Jackson, manager of maintenance and repair at Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

Standpipe failures are very serious because it’s time-consuming and laborious to carry fire hoses to the upper floors. In just five minutes, a room can get so hot that everything in it ignites at once.

A faulty standpipe at the former Deutsche Bank Building in New York in 2007 was to blame for the deaths of two firefighters and the injuries of 115 civilians after a small garbage fire grew into a 7-alarm blaze. A firefighter was killed in North Carolina in 2011 because of a malfunctioning standpipe.

It’s unclear when the city of Detroit last inspected standpipe system at the Leland Hotel. Officials didn’t immediately respond to our request for  information. This morning we filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all inspections of the building.

LELAND HOTEL DETROITThe Leland has fallen into disrepair, which is why it’s able to offer some of the cheapest rental rates in downtown Detroit. Current and former residents told me that the elevators often don’t work, management is lousy, the pipes burst and some of the walls are even collapsing.

One tenant told me safety is “a trade off” for affordable rent.

“An apartment a block away the same size of mine would be three times the price,” he said.

The Italian Renaissance-style building sits between the Michigan and United Artists theaters, which don’t operate anymore. At one time, Jimmy Hoff and the Purple Gang frequented the hotel’s bar. During the baseball season, legendary Tiger Hank Greenberg lived at the hotel.

The building is owned by local real estate developer Mike Higgins, who renovated the Broderick Tower. He couldn’t be reached for comment.

Steve Neavling

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.

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