Trial By Fire

o be a true Detroiter, you have to know how to walk through fire. For better or worse, blazes have played a major role in Detroit’s history-and so have the city’s firefighters. That history has come to light in a book of historic photos collected and edited by David Traiforos and Arn Nowicki entitled Images of America: Detroit Fire Department.

Detroit’s spirit was baptized by fire as early as 1805 when the city was a 100-year-old village of 600 people nestled along the Detroit River. On the morning of June 11, a fire started in a barn and spread quickly to nearby homes. There was no fire department at the time, so Detroiters had to form a bucket brigade to get water from the river to the business district.

The effort was futile. The entire city burned down save one building-it was a miracle that no one died. Soon after that devastating fire that Father Gabriel Richard coined the phrase that became the city’s motto: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.”

The book is a photo montage of those moments when we have indeed risen from the ashes: In 1915, when the Belle Isle Bridge caught on fire. In 1932, when a five-alarm fire at the Detroit Sulphite Pulp & Paper Company on Detroit’s west side raged for six days. And when the original Michigan Central Railroad Depot-a building that was several blocks long-was totally consumed by fire. Engine Company No. 8 tried to disconnect from a hydrant but couldn’t because of the heat. The fire engine had to be abandoned to the flames.

But no two events define Detroit’s phoenix-like past like the 1967 civil disturbance and Devil’s Night. The book includes compelling images of firefighters during the riots who worked around the clock over a five-day period to keep the city from repeating the tragedy it experienced 162 years earlier. The chapter on the riots begins with an aerial photo of billowing smoke covering the city on Sunday, July 23, 1967. The caption reads: “For the first time in the city’s history, the fire department’s telegraph system tapped out the ominous signal 3-777, which is ‘Recall All Firefighters, Detroit is Burning.’” Firefighters (including reinforcements from neighboring communities and Windsor, Ontario) made 1,682 runs during the conflagration, which left 1,300 buildings destroyed and 5,000 Detroiters homeless.

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While the riots were seen by some as largely a protest against the police, firefighters were caught in the crossfire. As they tried to save property and lives, they were the targets of abuse, flying objects and even gunfire. By the time the unrest ended on July 27, two firefighters had died from injuries sustained in the line of duty, and one police officer had been killed.

I moved to Detroit in 1984, at the height of yet another spate of fires that marred Detroit’s history: Devil’s Night. The pre-Halloween tradition of mischief had turned into an arson free-for-all; more than 800 fires were set on Oct. 30 that year. Police and firefighters coordinated an effort to cut the fires in half the following year, and curfews were added to help reduce the number of arsons. But true to the city’s motto, Detroiters themselves stepped up to recast the Halloween Eve inferno as “Angel’s Night” in 1995. With the help of tens of thousands of volunteers on patrol, the city triumphed over tragedy.

The book is short on the history of the integration of the Detroit Fire Department, which started in 1938 when Marcena Taylor and Marvin White joined Engine 34 on the city’s west side. The men required police protection to go to work and were segregated from the other firefighters at the firehouse. Taylor stayed with the department long enough to accumulate many “firsts,” including becoming the first Black battalion chief in 1969. Five years later, Melvin Jefferson became the city’s first Black fire commissioner.

It does, however, include a photo of the first women to qualify as Detroit firefighters in 1977.

For those who live in the city, it’s easy to become inured to the sound of sirens wailing. But the photos in Detroit Fire Department are a reminder of the human stories behind the sirens-stories of the firefighters, their courage and their dedication to the city. Because of them, many survive to hope for better things, and to rise from the ashes.

Images of America: Detroit Fire Department is available at ArcadiaPublishing.com and as an e-book from various retailers.

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