Detroit's Firefighters Battle Dangerous Ghosts They fight in neighborhoods they describe as being like "a mouthful of broken teeth" — a burned-out building here, an abandoned home there. Calling themselves "urban warriors," Detroit's firefighters face a landscape that grows more treacherous as the city's vacancy rate climbs.
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Detroit's Firefighters Battle Dangerous Ghosts

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Detroit's Firefighters Battle Dangerous Ghosts

Detroit's Firefighters Battle Dangerous Ghosts

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Detroit - the very name is a symbol of American might and American loss.

Mr. STEVE VARNAS (Arson Investigator): Police. Anybody in here? Anybody in here? Speak up.

LYDEN: Detroit is shrinking - shrinking because its population has dropped to less than half the two million it was 50 years ago. It's estimated that Detroit has over 70,000 abandoned homes and the number is growing.

Mr. VARNAS: Padlocked front, windows are in. It's got a For Rent sign. Anybody up here?

LYDEN: Steve Varnas is an arson investigator. As homes are deserted and time passes, they erode into empty, dangerous shells - tinder. The number of fires in Detroit is increasing. A captain for the arson unit, Varnas takes us down Chrysler Freewayb which cuts through the heart of the city and turns off into a side street. Varnas, a native Detroiter, points out the jack o' lantern effect with a light on here, a light on there, seemingly bobbing in a sea of broken and abandoned homes.

Mr. VARNAS: I'll bet you the furnace is missing.

LYDEN: We're in the basement of a deserted bungalow.

Mr. VARNAS: You know, different things missing, it could have been copper, you know, why this is missing that's the sewage drain pipe. This is the type of home that is increasingly becoming part of Detroit.

LYDEN: The arson captain drives these streets everyday.

Mr. VARNAS: Back in the day, Detroit had the most single-family dwellings of any city in the country, and now we're still the same size, 137 miles, which is roughly the size of San Francisco, Boston, and the island of Manhattan inside the city limits. And as our homes are continually destroyed either by neglect, abandonment, or fires, right now we're left with vacant land.

LYDEN: There's certainly a lot of vacant land on Charleston street, where eight homes in a row are boarded up or burned. A woman is pushing a bundle cart of groceries through the snow. Her name is Dimitria Green(ph).

Ms. DIMITRIA GREEN: Oh, this neighborhood is rugged and bad - terrible. Houses are going up for foreclosure. You know how it goes, it's hard over here. Economy is down. No jobs, you've got to have a car.

LYDEN: Right. Do you live in this house here, now?

Ms. GREEN: Oh, no. My brother, Ralph(ph) stays there.

LYDEN: Can I ask - does he own it or if he's squatting?

Ms. GREEN: No, I guess, God, I guess you could say squatting. And it's cold, he have to burn wood, you know.

LYDEN: It's as if Rumplestilskin is inside the house, an elfin man emerges. He introduces himself as Hoppergrass.

(Soundbite of conversation)

LYDEN: What is your nickname?

HOPPERGRASS: Hoppergrass.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: That's grasshopper backwards. Dimitria pulls her cart up the rickety stairs.

Ms. GREEN: I've got to watch my groceries, though, because they steal around here. They'd steal sweetening out of ginger cake.

LYDEN: They'd steal the sweetening out of a ginger cake, she says. Hoppergrass is asked to put his pit bull away in a back room. He shows us how he scavenged wood from old fences to burn. His TV is run straight out of an electricity pole.

HOPPERGRASS: As you can see, I've got a hot plate. I don't have no heat. I burn fire every day. My fire went out. And it's cold back there. I try to block that, too much air. In the back rooms, there's too much air coming in here. The owner messed up and lost his building.

LYDEN: Right.

HOPPERGRASS: He got loans on this bad boy, that's why he's been sending me letters. I could show you the letters. I've got thousands of them bad boy. As a matter of fact, I've got one right here, the last one.

LYDEN: Hoppergrass pulls out one of the letters on this bad boy. The owner has been foreclosed on, but the letters keep coming. In the last two years, Detroit has had 67,000 foreclosures, and two-thirds of those homes are still vacant. A man like Hoppergrass who sleeps next to a bonfire in a wooden house is the next fire run waiting to happen. And the arson experts know it. In the last ten fires in vacant buildings in Detroit, five bodies were found.

(Soundbite of alarm)

Unidentified Man #1: We jerry-rigged this ourselves. Yeah.

Unidentified Man #2: Thanks for noticing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: The men at Engine Co. 23 have rigged a buzzer to the quiet printer that's supposed to roll out a sheet of paper to tell them when another fire has broken out. Detroit's firefighting force has gone from 1,900 firefighters five decades ago to 1,100 today. But because of rolling management brownouts and shuttered engine companies, only about 60 companies are on duty at any one time. In stark terms, that leaves fewer than 300 firefighters to cover one of the most massive cities in American on any given day.

Engine House 23 was built in 1899. As with firehouses everywhere, the men who work here make it their second home and treat each other like brothers, but not college roommates. The average age of a Detroit firefighter is 42, and their aging bodies are as battered as prizefighters.

Unidentified Man #3: I'm 39 years old. I've had five knee surgeries, two broken wrists, two nose surgeries. I've only been on the job 18 years.

LYDEN: High up on the wall, past the Christmas decorations, there's a black funeral wreath, a testament to the man who died last month fighting a fire in a long-vacant house in Detroit. He was senior firefighter Walter Harris. On the force 18 years, African-American, aged 39, and a father of six. Walter Harris was one of life's enthusiasts, and it radiated from him. He drove a vintage motorcycle cross-country. He joined a neighborhood luau after a fire run in full gear and danced. His friend Lieutenant Steven Kirshner fought Walter's last fire with him. The lieutenant's been having a very hard time since Walter's death. He takes us back to the day it happened, the early morning of November 15th, when the alarm squealed. The address was for an abandoned house which had been set on fire before.

Lieutenant STEVEN KIRSHNER (Firefighter, Detroit): It was a slow day at the firehouse. We spent a lot of time in the kitchen, cooking, talking - talking a lot, telling the same stories that we'd told 50 times before, and we're still laughing at them. So it was a good day. And about five a.m., we got a run for a dwelling fire.

LYDEN: The fire was on the top floor, fully involved, as firefighters say. Fire blowing out the dormer and side windows of the upper story, flames licking out windows. The truck pulled up with four men on the pumper, another pumper arrived. They dumped 1,5000 gallons of water on the blaze, hammering the derelict structure and squelching the flames. Walter Harris was standing on the landing below the second floor and the fire was 99 percent out. They were just pushing out roof boards to dig for live embers, and then, everything changed.

Lieutenant KIRSHNER: I heard a large crack, like you would take a ruler and - but a little bit louder, a wooden ruler and just snap it. I heard that, and the next thing I knew, I was being propelled down the stairs. And some of the guys from the first floor grabbed me and dragged me outside real quick. And at that time, I went and told the chief, I said, we've got a collapse, and I heard people screaming up top. I said, I think we have men trapped, and we need to call for extra companies. And so then, I ran back in, I ran back up the stairs.

LYDEN: You ran back up the stairs?

Lieutenant KIRSHNER: Yeah, those were my men.

LYDEN: Wow. Even though, by now, the roof has come off.

Lieutenant KIRSHNER: Well, they were in there. Yeah. Damn. Um...

LYDEN: It's clear from the expression on Steve Kirshner's face that a big part of him is still in that house.

Lieutenant KIRSHNER: So anyways, this wall had fallen. This wall had fallen, and I just felt he was going to be there. So we started digging here for Walter, and as soon as we started digging, we're digging with our hands, trying to lift, we couldn't. And one of our guys came up with a saw, and I had him - directed him to cut one of the beams. He cut that, we are able to lift a section off. Then I had him cut the next layer, and we cut the beam, and we couldn't move it still. So I had to make a second cut, to make a smaller section. We were able to lift the second section off of him. I was digging through the shingles with my hands and I found - I saw his bottle, his air bottle. So I said, I got him here, I got him here.

So we dragged him out, we rolled him over, we removed his mask, undid his coat, took his hood off and firefighter Agby(ph) gave him two quick breaths. We dragged him down the stairs, put him on the gurney, got him into the EMS, and left immediately. And we had three firefighters in the back, firefighter Ham(ph), myself, and firefighter Tora Hardaway(ph) were doing CPR. And the EMS tech was working the ambi-bag, trying to get him air. Then we got to the hospital and they worked on him there, but they couldn't get him back.

LYDEN: After Walter Harris was killed, Detroit firefighters decided to do something so they wouldn't have to risk their lives again in the city's abandoned houses. We'll have that story after the break. Stay with us, this is NPR News.


LYDEN: Welcome back to All Things Considered. I'm Jacki Lyden. We've been following the story of vacant homes in Detroit and their impact on the city's fire department. A month ago, a beloved firefighter died on the job in an abandoned home in Detroit.

Lieutenant ROBERT SHINSKY (Firefighter, Detroit): We boarded this one up since I marked it. When I marked it, it was all open. That's how we got in there, and I kind of looked it over. But you can see it was burned before.

LYDEN: Because of senior firefighter Walter Harris's death in a building collapse last month, Detroit firefighters have been marking derelict houses, as has been done in Flint, Michigan and New York City. An abandoned house deemed structurally risky is no longer one they will charge into to put out the flames. They're marked with red Xs on their foundations, an eerie reminiscence of New Orleans. Those Xs marked searches and where bodies have been found. These Xs say, don't go in. Lieutenant Robert Shinsky, who began marking on safe structures a few weeks ago, is safety chief for the firefighter's union.

Lieutenant SHINSKY: Say it was burned before we're marking, and mark all four sides of the building, OK, with a big red X and orange X.

Ms. MARCIELLA GARCIA: That house burned my house. So I feel like I will have to watch every day and looking around in the night, and it's not safe. It's not safe.

LYDEN: No one's told Maricella Garcia(ph) why they're marking the houses. She lives next door to a house with a red X on it. When it caught fire last year, she had to repair the scorches and burns to her own home. Now though, she and her husband have both lost their jobs, and their own fire insurance expired last month. She hopes the red Xs means the city is going to keep an eye on this place. Shinsky says it's not so.

Lieutenant SHINSKY: False, false - it's false, it's a false sense of security because we're marking it that if we ever have a fire here, we know that, hey, we've looked at this place. It's got some concerns. Let's take this one slow.

(Soundbite of conversation in car)

LYDEN: It's been a hard lesson learned with Walter's death. They can't save every house. They like to detour sometimes through neighborhoods where they don't need to do this. Shinsky and Dan McNamara, the president of the Detroit Firefighters Association, drive down Vernor Boulevard in southwest Detroit, through a bustling Hispanic neighborhood.

Mr. DAN MCNAMARA (President, Detroit Firefighters Association): So there are small victories.

Lieutenant SHINSKY: We get little to no fires on Vernor Highway. Vernor - that way anymore. This way, we still get them. We're going to go...

(Soundbite of conversation in car)

Mr. MCNAMARA: We're going to go...?

Lieutenant SHINSKY: Go straight on across.


Lieutenant SHINSKY: Now we'll show you a different one.

LYDEN: Not to far away is a neighborhood called Carbonworks, named for a company that was once legendary, the Michigan Carbonworks, which turned buffalo bones from the plains states into carbon black for ink. By the 1960s, it was a fertilizer company that pulled out of Detroit, leaving its name behind. There's a salt mine nearby, and a mountain of the stuff rises into the night. Elsewhere, nature's begun to encroach again on vacant streets. Fire hydrants, border fields and garbage is dumped freely under Fisher Highway.

(Soundbite of conversation)

Unidentified Man #4: Lost souls. These people are lost souls down here.

Unidentified Woman: ... are lost.

Unidentified Man #4: Oh, yeah, they're lost.

LYDEN: But just beyond the train tracks, we find a stolid black door. It looks just like one more abandoned house in the dark. It's a beer hall called the Carbon Athletic Club. Behind the door, patrons are lined up at the bar. This is the last remaining outpost of a happier time when the massive Carbonworks thrived. The cozy walls here are covered with pictures of the Carbonworks' own football team.

Most of the people drinking tonight at the Carbon Athletic Club don't live around here anymore. They come back often though, for the fellowship and memories. Charlene Kuslowski, the club's treasurer, is here four or five nights a week. Recently though, a neighborhood tragedy reminded her of just how far off the map the club on Gate Street has gone. We warn you, it's a grim tale.

Ms. CHARLENE KUSLOWSKI (Treasurer, Carbon Athletic Club): It was a neighbor down the street that had come over and knocked on the door, and she spoke very broken English. And she just said, come, come, come. Help, help, help. So I went across the street, and there was a lady that was standing - her back was towards me. And I walked around, and she had hung herself. Initially, when I called 911, the 911 operator started yelling at me, telling me, look, there is no North Gates. And I finally said, look lady, I don't care if it's North Gates, South Gates or Gates, there is a lady that is hung here. We're between Dearborn Avenue and Forman, off of Fourth street. You know, I mean we're three blocks off of Fourth street. Don't tell me that you don't know, you know. And so we waited. Well, if you stop and think, it's not three miles down the road that the new police department is. I couldn't understand that. I could not understand that. And then her husband came home, and that was something that I didn't want anybody to have to see someone hanging there with a garrotte around their neck, and he came home and saw her hanging there.

LYDEN: Out on the deserted street, directly across from the Carbon Athletic Club, Dan McNamara, head of the Firefighters Union, is looking at another abandoned house with a red X on it. It's roofless. A flower tub lists outside the front door, and the snow blows in. As many times as McNamara has seen homes like this one, he never fails to wonder about them.

Mr. MCNAMARA: The thing is - listen to the silence of this home, you know, when we're doing done with a fire it's just so silent. What happened to the house, the lives that have lived through here? Now it's just a burned out shell. It's forgotten. It's going to cave in as part of these neighborhoods that are gone. We (unintelligible) you know, all the way not back to 1921, this was vibrant with families. Children were born here and graduated. People got married, and now, it's just an empty silent house.

LYDEN: You can look clear through it.


(Soundbite of running train)

LYDEN: Despite Detroit's sobering problems, there are those who see a brighter future for the city. Tomorrow on All Things Considered, re-imagining Detroit. Our story on Detroit's firefighters was produced by Zoe Chace, and there's lots more on our Web site,

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