|Below is Chapter One from “38 Years a Detroit Firefighter’s Story” by retired Senior Chief Bob Dombrowski. The book is a memoir in which it he recalls the highs and lows of his nearly 4 decades with Detroit Fire.Chief Dombrowski began his career as a trialman with the Detroit Fire Department in 1972. Over the years he rose through the ranks to retire as Senior Chief in 2010. He served through some of the busiest years the Detroit Fire Department has experienced. The book is available in paperback and kindle edition from Amazon.|
“Pans open,” yelled the cook. I dropped the Detroit Free Press I was reading and headed
back to the kitchen. There, half a dozen guys were herded around our big old Garland
cast-iron stove with all its burners on. On top of each burner was a cast-iron frying pan with
little chunks of fat burning to grease up the pan. In the center of the small kitchen was a
square, green table piled high with food. Front and center were nine beautiful rib steaks (my
favorite) sitting on the white wrapping paper they came in.
“Looks like the cook finally spent the money,” somebody joked.
I grabbed the big fork, stabbed one of the steaks, plopped it in one of the sizzling pans,
and sprinkled on salt and pepper and garlic powder. I grabbed a platter, scooped up a pile of
mashed potatoes and some green beans, then stood around with everyone else, waiting for
my rib eye to finish frying.
I finally headed, platter in hand, to the dining room, a long, narrow room adjacent to the
kitchen. I found my seat at the heavy, oblong, fifteen-by-three-foot wooden table that was
standard in every Detroit fire station. It could probably fit both units, about eighteen men, if
you had to. I always sat on the side facing the windows. It was a pretty fall day with light
gray skies. The leaves were changing, and a light wind was humming as I watched the cars
quietly driving down West Grand Boulevard. I heard a dog bark behind me.
“Boze, I forgot about you,” I said, laughing.
The alert disrupts dinner
Boze was our fire station dog, a 150-pound half-shepherd,
half-whatever-jumped-over-the-fence dog. She had wandered in one day a few years before
and became part of our family. At the time, every fire station had a dog, and most
fire-station dogs looked like Boze. Dalmatians are usually associated with firemen. Why? I
don’t know. I’ve never seen a Dalmatian in a fire station. Good old Boze sat there patiently
as we feasted on our steaks, knowing afterward there would be her can of Kal Kan and a
couple of bones, maybe even one with a little meat left on, for her.
Zing zing! The alert went off, as always, just as we started to eat. Our alert sounds like the
bell you ring in a supermarket when you want the butcher. “Box alarm, everybody,” yelled
the man on watch. Oh boy! In Detroit we have three kinds of runs: box alarms, still alarms, and specials.
Specials are runs that don’t involve fire, such as car accidents, medical runs,
people trapped in elevators, and so on. Still alarms are small fires, dumpsters, car fires, and the like. But box alarms are the big ones—building fires, house fires, store fires, and factory
fires. And this was a box alarm, and when he shouted everybody, that meant everybody. We
had two trucks, an engine and a ladder truck, and everybody was responding. We don’t
leave anyone at the fire station.
We all jumped up and ran to the apparatus room. There sat two well-worn fire trucks:
Engine 10, a 1957 Seagrave fire engine, and Ladder 4, a 1958 Seagrave eighty-five-foot
tiller ladder truck. A tiller ladder truck is a truck with a fireman who sits in the very back
and steers the back end, and that was me.
I ran to the rear of the truck, jumped into my boots, threw on my coat, and climbed up
into the bucket. I put on my helmet and hit the horn twice, two beeps, letting the driver
know I was ready. Dino fired up the converted diesel, put it in gear, and out we went, lights
flashing and sirens blaring. We went left and headed up to Michigan Avenue. When you’re
the tiller man and the driver turns left, you must turn right, keeping the back end in line.
A church is burning
In all my years as a firefighter, I’ve ridden and driven every type of fire apparatus
imaginable, and I loved it all. But the most thrilling place to be is in the tiller bucket. Sure,
you get wet when it rains and freeze in winter, but on this lovely fall afternoon, blasting
down Michigan Avenue, this ride could have gone on forever. As we drove down this
once-proud street lined with fading two-story buildings, some vacant, some with businesses
still trying to hang on, there were a few pedestrians, most not bothering to lift their heads to
look at this passing spectacle. After all, this is Detroit, fires and fire trucks are as common
as robins in spring.
We made a sharp right on Twenty-Fifth, the engine first, closely followed by the truck.
I could see the guys on the back of the engine, holding on with one hand as they strapped on
their yellow MSA breathing tanks with the other. In Detroit, we pull up ready to fight fire.
We drove down Twenty-Fifth, a narrow street lined with small wood-framed houses built
around the turn of the century.
Most have been updated over the years from when Detroit was booming—asphalt siding in the thirties, aluminum siding in the fifties. Now these little houses sit like the rest of the city, trying to hold on, hoping for a better tomorrow. At the end of the street, like a castle in the middle of a village, was our destination, a huge, cathedral-like church with smoke oozing out the roof overhangs. It was going!
The engine spun around and stopped in front of the church. The guys jumped off the back end, threw the two inch-and-a-half bundles down on the street, then grabbed the
two-and-a-half-inch line, pulling off a couple of lengths, yelling “Okay.” The FEO
proceeded to the hydrant, jumped out, and began to hook up the soft suction to the fire
hydrant. The ladder truck made a right turn to pull alongside the church while I maneuvered
the back end between the fire engine and the parked cars. When Dino got the rig where he
wanted it, he stopped, jumped out, and began putting out the outriggers.
The lieutenant yelled, “Put the stick up.”
Up on the roof
I knew what that meant. I climbed out of the bucket, unlocked the clamps that kept the
tiller bucket in place, rolled the bucket over to free up the aerial ladder, reached down and
pulled the pin up (the drive shaft that connects the steering wheel to the rear wheels), and
threw it on the ground. The aerial was free, and Dino lifted it up and turned it to the top of
the church roof. I ran to the toolbox, grabbed an axe, and waited, along with a firefighter I’ll
call Rodney, for the aerial to be in place so we could climb up and open the roof with holes.
Dino set the aerial in the center of the roof a couple of feet below the peak, which
normally wouldn’t be a problem. We climbed up the ladder, axes in hand, no air tanks, and
no power saws. This was Detroit; we didn’t have power saws back then. When we reached
the peak, we went left, walking while straddling the peak. About twenty feet down, we
stopped and began chopping a hole. The first thing we noticed was that this was a new roof.
We rarely have fires with new roofs, and they are a lot harder to chop holes in. After a
couple of minutes of chopping, we had a three-foot hole with a fair amount of smoke
coming out. We decided to go to the other side of the aerial and put another hole in.
We went around twenty feet past the aerial and started chopping, but this time, it was
different. Thick black smoke greeted us and some flames too. I looked back to our first hole.
Thick black smoke was coming out of that one too, and the roof was getting hot. The smoke
coming out of the eaves was getting thicker, and it was getting hard to see.
“We better get out of here,” I said.
“You ain’t kidding,” said Rodney.
The fire takes control
But now we had problems. The smoke was so thick we couldn’t find the aerial, and it
was getting hard to breathe. We crawled to where we thought the aerial was, but when we
reached with our feet, we couldn’t find it.
“It’s got to be down here. I’m going to try,” said Rodney. “Man, be careful, because if you miss it, it’s a long ride down, about forty feet,” I said.
Slowly, he started to slide.
“It’s not here,” he yelled.
I reached down and helped pull him back up. It was getting darker and hotter and harder
to breathe; time was running out. Nobody on the ground could see us. It was up to us. We
slid a couple more feet down. This time, it was up to me. I handed Rodney my axe. Usually,
you want it with you on a roof; punching the pick while slipping down a roof has saved
many a fireman’s life. This time, it wouldn’t help. There was no time for a rescue. I started
to freely slide down, kicking both feet, hoping to find the aerial. Suddenly, bam, my left foot
hit it. I slid to it, grabbed on, and yelled, “Here it is.” I kept yelling so Rodney could find me,
and find me he did, sliding down dead center of the ladder. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
And we did.
Back on the ground, we saw that the fire was starting to take control. It was coming
through the roof. The engine crews were driven out of the church, and they were
exchanging one-and-a-half-inch hose lines for bigger two-and-a-half-inch lines. The
battalion chief called for a second alarm, which meant we would double the amount of men
and fire companies we had on the scene.
Detroit’s normal box-alarm response was three engines: one ladder truck, one squad, and
a battalion chief, about twenty-two men in all. Calling for a second alarm would double that
amount plus dispatch the senior chief to take charge. Each additional alarm after that, third,
fourth, and fifth, would again dispatch that many companies and men to the scene. Fifth
alarm is as big as they go in Detroit.
Ladder 4’s crew was getting ready for the big show. The lieutenant ordered a water tower,
which meant lowering the big aerial ladder down to its bed, installing a three-inch line with
a big water gun (nozzle) on the very top. As we worked at that, the engine crew stretched
two two-and-a-half-inch lines for our water supply. When ready, the driver cautiously raised
the aerial ladder up while we installed the ladder straps and guide lines. This whole
operation probably took three minutes while dodging smoke and debris from the fire.
Once the aerial was in place, towering over the church, a firefighter would have to go up
and operate the water gun. I strapped on a safety belt and climbed up the big stick through
all the smoke. When I reached the top, I knew something wasn’t right. The hose and the gun where shaking wildly. I couldn’t see because of the smoke.
“I’m a little shook up”
I hooked in and reached over and turned the nozzle to fog to clear some of the smoke so I
could see. What I saw was that the nozzle wasn’t properly fastened and was about to fly off
the aerial. The nozzle clamps to the first and second rung of the aerial. Our first rung was
badly bent because we also use our aerial for ventilation. There was no better way to open
up a dormer or a copula than with our power ram aerial ladder, but the years had taken their
toll. The first rung was bent like a crescent and couldn’t hold the nozzle clamp. To make
matters worse, the spanner belt we used as a safety tie-down was left off during our haste in
getting the tower up.
I grabbed on to both rungs using all my weight. I tried to keep the hose and gun in place.
I began yelling down for them to shut the water off, but they were sixty feet below, and
through the smoke, the sirens, the shouting, and the roaring fire, nobody could hear me.
Suddenly, the hose came off, flying right by me, pushing me off the ladder into the smoky
sky. Luckily, the safety belt kept me from falling to the ground. The hose and gun went wild,
like a loose giant cobra, showering the entire fire ground and everyone down there with
hundreds of gallons of water. Boy, did they scramble! I pulled myself back on the aerial,
unhooked my belt, and climbed down.
When I got to the bottom, the lieutenant asked, “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m a little shook up, but I’m okay,” I said.
We reassembled the water tower, properly this time. I went back up and began directing
the water flow onto the burning church. I was suspended eighty-five feet in the air above the
fire; I was like a bird, watching the whole operation. Below me, the fire was now coming
completely through the roof; much of the roof was caving in. The fire had gone to a third
alarm, and over a dozen trucks surrounded us. Two other aerial water towers were now
operating, one in front and one in the rear. Fire hoses, looking like spaghetti, surrounded us.
Firefighters on the ground operated monitors and two-and-a-half-inch lines, and together
with our aerial attacks, the fire and the firefighters were at a standoff.
Looking down and to the left, I saw a half dozen Detroit cops standing around, looking
sharp in their dark blue Eisenhower jackets. For them, it was momentarily soft duty, keeping
the gawkers at bay, and they didn’t seem to mind.
Past them, a crowd had gathered, as they always do. A lot of them looked elderly, old women in babushkas, old men in Andy Capp hats. I thought, what sacrifice they must have made working hard all day at the factories, coming home to those little houses, and building
this church, which was now in flames. The church was something bigger than themselves,
something they could all share, something they could all take pride in, something they all
lived for, and now it was gone.
Looking farther, I could see the downtown skyline complete with our newest attraction,
the Renaissance Center—five shiny cylinder skyscrapers built right on the Detroit River.
The center was built by a group of civic leaders, including Henry Ford II, with the hope of
turning around our dying downtown. They had a contest to name the center. I entered the
name Emerald City from the movie Wizard of Oz. It kind of resembled it. After all, weren’t
all of us Detroiters as hopeful as Dorothy and the Tin Man were that this place would make
everything all right? I didn’t win. They chose the Renaissance Center.
After a few hours of us battling the blaze, the fire was starting to get under control. The
chief called for relief, calling for replacement companies so we could go back to our
quarters. Four hours is the longest they allow you to stay at a fire. The fire was still burning
and would probably be for the rest of the night, meaning fire companies would be here all
night. We were in a good spot, so the chief wanted our truck to stay as it was. We had no
equipment to pick up. The relieving ladder company would simply replace us, and we
would take their truck back to our quarters.
Our fill-in truck was a straight truck, no tiller, so I piled in back with everyone else. We
all were cold, wet, exhausted, dirty, and hungry. I thought of my steak waiting for me. What
would I do with it? Heat it up in the oven or maybe just get two slices of bread and make a
steak sandwich. Decisions, decisions! When we got back, we found that the decision had
already been made.
My plate was empty. In fact, all the plates were empty, and scattered all
about were nine steak bones licked clean. Lying in the corner was a guilty and overstuffed
dog named Boze. Half the guys were yelling, and half were laughing. Poor Boze. After all,
four hours is a long time to go without chow. I was so hungry I think I ate Boze’s Kal Kan.