Residents and firemen in Highland Park and Detroit, Michigan have denounced the social conditions that led to a tragic house fire in the early morning hours of October 22. Orlando "Dewey" Glover, 11, Zeryha Dale, 9, and Melvin "Petey" Turner, 5, died in the blaze. Their great aunt, Josephine Dale, 51, died after reentering the burning house to save the children. Josephine's son Willie and his girlfriend were able to escape with their infant child.
An investigation is still under way to determine the definitive cause of the fire in Highland Park. Friends of the family, however, reported that basic utility services to the house—electricity, gas, and water—had been cut off. It was feared that these very difficult conditions contributed to the blaze, which reduced four adjacent houses to smoldering cinders and damaged a fifth house nearby.
A majority of homes in Highland Park have at least one of their utilities cut off at any given time. Most houses in the area date from the early decades of the 20th century, when production at the nearby Ford plants, which produced the Model T and the Model A, was booming. Most lack insulation, caulking and updated windows, which are routinely required under contemporary building codes, to protect inhabitants against the loss of heat. Too often, desperate efforts to keep warm lead to terrible tragedies.
These aging wood-frame structures were built at a time when basic fire stops in wall cavities and the penetrations between levels were not required by building codes. The use of fire retardant materials, which also satisfy contemporary code requirements, was unheard of. The terrifying result is that houses can function as firetraps.
Budget cuts have tied the hands of firefighters. While the number of fires has steadily increased, the number of firemen and open fire stations has been cut. In Highland Park, instead of closing stations permanently, the city has adopted a policy of alternating temporary shutdowns. Often, as in the case of the Dale home fire, nearby fire hydrants have inadequate water pressure to fill a hose.
On Saturday, the World Socialist Web Site sent a team of reporters to talk to residents and firemen in the area. An initial reaction of shock and sorrow has been supplemented with a growing sense of anger over the role of big business in precipitating the city's decay, contributing to this tragic loss of life.
Curtis Johnson, a carpenter who knew Josephine and her family, said he was shocked by her death. He had seen her only the Monday before the tragedy.
He noted that many in the area cannot afford utilities and that things are getting worse. "We have professionals here who work in healthcare, or as factory workers, and can't pay their bills," he said. He gestured along Highland Park's Waverly Road. "In the summer all these houses were open. Now they're closed down."
Curtis and his wife Ayeisha live with close family in the neighborhood and are trying to buy a house of their own. When we met them they were standing in front of a vacant home they have been trying to purchase for four months. After a multitude of appeals, said Ayeisha, "we still can't get the $2,000 loan we need to move in."
While the couple has counted as many as six vacant homes on a nearby city block, they cannot acquire one for themselves and their six children.
"People are helping us out," said Curtis, "neighbors, friends and family. We as a society have to do that now. We've had no help from the city; just other people."
Curtis lost his job two years ago after becoming ill. "I've applied for Social Security four times. They told me, ‘when your kidneys are failing and you're on dialysis, then you can come back.' They can keep their food stamps. I just want insurance."
He said that his monthly medications had increased from $6 to $80 dollars in the space of a year. Without help from the local pharmacy, he said, they would cost $720.
Curtis said that he would vote for Obama, but that he was furious about the bailout of Wall Street and the political programs adopted by both parties. "How on earth can we all share the cost of this bailout if we're not equal in the first place?"
"The auto companies and banks did this to themselves, with their executive bonuses and golden parachutes. What do they have to complain about?" he asked.
Across the street at a family gathering, Renee Tripp said she was "disgusted, frustrated and angry" about the fire that had claimed Josephine and the children.
Renee and her family were coping with another loss. During the summer, Renee's sister Deborah, 41 years old, had disappeared. When we spoke with Renee she had just learned that a body found in Detroit might be that of her sister.
Larry Williams, Renee's brother in law, said that the authorities had cut off Deborah's utilities before she disappeared, forcing her into the street. "I think that contributed to this tragedy," he said. "It was the first home she'd owned her whole life. At one time we could appeal for lights and gas. Now there's nobody to appeal to. Only money can appeal."
Local firemen spoke to the WSWS about the fire on Wednesday and the condition of Detroit's fire department. Danny, a firefighter for over two decades, said that more firemen were needed and that fire companies needed to be kept open.
"Half a dozen companies are closed every day," he said, adding that the orders from above were not meant to save lives, but money. "The city's playing Russian roulette with our safety," he said.
In 2003, Fire Commissioner Tyrone Scott worked with Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to shut down fire companies "on a rolling basis," reducing the safety budget. The two initially stated that the closures would be temporary, lasting perhaps only the duration of the summer.
According to the Detroit Free Press, Danny and other firefighters opposed these measures without success. Neither Scott nor Kilpatrick are mentioned among firefighters without an immediate outburst of anger and contempt.
One fireman, Hunter, said that Detroit suffered from more fires than other cities. "How many is it now," he asked, "25 a day?"
"Those are real fires," added his colleague Wayne, "not false alarms."
Wayne noted that fires used to be concentrated in poorer neighborhoods. "Now they're everywhere," he said. As more and more people face economic ruin, some try to burn their houses down to collect insurance. This puts them, their neighbors and firemen at risk.
"People lose their jobs. They sometimes set fire to their homes because they're desperate. I don't condone their actions—they could get themselves killed—but I understand them," Wayne said. "They've got their kids sitting there without food or utilities. They don't know what to do."
He added, "It's because of these predatory lending practices and adjustable rate mortgages. These banks come in and say the home that's selling for $80,000 is worth $220,000. Then you start getting the bills; how are you going to pay for that with a retirement check?"
Asked about the influence of racial politics in Detroit, Wayne, who is black, insisted, "Workers have got to look beyond color. I'll tell you what I care about. I want my daughter to get a good education. I want your son to have medical care. I want families to be able to put food on the table."
"And we need to have city infrastructure," added Hunter, "that gives funding to the fire department so we can protect its citizens."