Early Wednesday morning three children and their great aunt died in a house fire in Highland Park, Michigan, a town bordered on three sides by Detroit. Orlando "Dewey" Glover, 11, Zeryha Dale, 9, and Melvin "Petey" Turner, 5, died in the blaze. Josephine Dale, 51, died after reentering the burning house to save the children.
The likely cause of the fire was an electrical space heater the family was using for warmth during the cold night, when temperatures dropped to near freezing. Utility companies had suspended gas service to the Dales' home. Without heat, in order to keep the young children warm, the family resorted to using space heaters, which likely set fire to the house either through direct contact with flammable material, or by overburdening what may have been an outdated and unsafe electrical system.
Local firefighters responded quickly to the blaze, but with only one truck. Low water pressure from a malfunctioning nearby fire hydrant hindered the initial response. The Detroit Fire Department was eventually called in to control the fire. By then four other houses had been consumed, making at least one other family homeless in the process.
At 2:45 a.m., neighbors were awakened to the screams of help from the children's mother. Within minutes, the eighty-year-old wooden frame house became what a fireman on the scene called "a ball of flame."
Willie Dale, the children's uncle and the son of Josephine, managed to escape with his girlfriend and ten-month-old daughter. Prior to reentering the house, Josephine had awakened them. "I heard them banging on the windows, saying to break the windows. Then I didn't hear them pounding anymore," Dale said. Eight people lived in the home.
The charred remains of Josephine and the children were found huddled together. It was unknown where they died, since the house was completely consumed by the fire. The children all attended Robert E. Barber School of the Gifted & Talented in Highland Park.
"Everybody knew her; everybody loved her," a long-time neighbor of Josephine said. "It doesn't bother me, the bodies coming out. I know God had his arms around them."
The family had no insurance.
A spokesman for DTE, contacted by the World Socialist Web Site, confirmed that the corporation had suspended electrical service for the household in December of 2004 and gas in March of 2005—both shutoffs coming in the winter months. Since the family was using electric space heaters, it most likely means the house was illegally hooked to nearby power lines—a dangerous practice that could also prove to be the cause of the fire.
The CEO of DTE, Anthony F. Earley Jr., has been paid nearly $21 million since 2003. In 2008 alone, he took home $5 million, according to Forbes. DTE confirmed the validity of these estimates. When asked how many households in Highland Park were without basic utilities due to DTE's suspensions, the spokesman responded that he did not know. A neighbor of the Dales said that a majority of households in the city were without utilities.
In May, in his annual report to DTE shareholders, Earley boasted that in 2007 "our utilities delivered solid earnings performance...Our non-utility asset sales and synfuel proceeds totaled $1.5 billion in cash resources, and our dividend yield of more than 5 percent is very competitive and attractive in the current market environment."
World Socialist Web Site reporters interviewed neighbors near the scene. Residents expressed sadness and anger over the fact that the Dales were forced to live without gas heat.
Lisa Tipton, a neighbor and friend of the deceased children's mother, and herself a single mother of two, said that she also lives without utilities, using a butane heater. She knows that this is not safe. "I have to give baths to my babies and cook food," she said.
"Sixty percent of the families in Highland park are without gas, without lights, many without both. But when you go to the Department of Human Services [DHS] office, they will deny you help, they won't assist you," Tipton explained. Like her, the Dales could not get help. "This was a preventable tragedy," she said.
Lisa, who was evicted from her home earlier this year, now lives with her sister in the neighborhood of the fire. Lisa said when she went to DHS they told her to go to a homeless shelter. "There was only one homeless shelter in Highland Park and that one closed." Lisa said it was an awful place "with bed bugs, scabies, and scarlet fever. Detroit's shelters were full, and they started sending people to Trenton and other places."
Another neighbor, Frederick Williams, a former Ford worker, said that the Fire Department's response was insufficient. "The pressure on the lines was not enough to put those fires out. They had one truck to fight a fire in five houses." Another neighbor likened the malfunctioning fire hydrant to a garden hose.
Tahjian Kilpatrick, a junior at Highland Park High School knew the family that died. Tahjian told the World Socialist Web Site that it is common for people to be living without utilities. "Especially with this economy. It is very common. My dad, my uncle, and my other uncle, they worked at the Jefferson North Assembly plant [Chrysler], but they have been laid off until 2010 and they can't do it all off of an unemployment check."
Highland Park is a devastated industrial city, but it was not always so. The home of the first major Ford factory, where the famous Model T was produced, the town was also the home of Chrysler corporate headquarters until 1992. In 1950, over 46,000 people lived in Highland Park. According to 2007 estimates, there are now only 15,000 residents. Many houses have been abandoned. The city has been under severe financial stress, with limited ability to provide basic services to its residents, including adequate fire protection.
The fire that killed four members of the Dale family was avoidable, but many similar tragedies will follow across the country in the coming winter months, as families who have been unable to pay utility bills use open fires, candles, lanterns, torches, and butane heaters to stay warm and illuminate their houses.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the private ownership of basic utilities stands testament to the cruelty and irrationality of capitalism. The myth that the "free market" will provide the best service is utterly bankrupt. Corporations such as DTE are in fact legal monopolies that serve to benefit only the CEOs and wealthy shareholders who control them and who contribute nothing to the actual provision of service.