The 1967 Detroit Riot

Fire operations are usually performed in a demanding time frame under stressful conditions. Add a riot atmosphere, and a hostile crowd, with shots being fired and you are on 12th Street in Detroit on a hot summer night in 1967. The prelude to that civil disturbance is still being discussed. A white dominated police force that used intimidation laced with racial overtones was part of the problem. A black populace that was rising in defiance during the civil rights movement of the 1960s was another piece of the puzzle. A raid on an after hours drinking establishment, that came hard and fast, was the catalyst that exploded into a week long riot that killed 43 civilians, one policeman, and two Firefighters. The fires that burned that night have smoldered for over 40 years. They destroyed a great city.

From a Firefighter’s perspective the events of July 20th 1967 were new and life threatening. It was a world gone crazy. Many of us were called to duty by radio and television alerts requesting all emergency personnel to report to their duty stations. Central office was overwhelmed by fire calls. All units were working. Dwellings were on fire, commercial buildings were ablaze, furniture stores and small businesses were being fire bombed. It was chaos to the nth degree. It did not seem like the Fire Department had a game plan for a riot on the first night of the civil disturbance.

By day two department officials formed three command posts, one on the eastside, a central location, and a west side command post. I was working out of the central location at the training academy on Warren and Lawton. Fire apparatus were lined up and took runs in rotation as they came in. We were guarded by the National Guard and Detroit police units. The smell of smoke filled the air. Gun fire echoed through the neighborhoods near the command post. A cloak of fear descended on the city.

On Monday night my company took a run just across the expressway to the near eastside. As we passed by Wayne State University we were covered by police officers engaged in a gun battle with a sniper holed up in an apartment building. On arrival we found a dwelling totally involved in fire. As we stretched a hose line to fight the fire we were attacked by armed gunman. A car pulled up a block away and started shooting at us with rifles. My Lieutenant was a veteran of world war two. He told us to drop our line and get into the rig. We left our hose and started our escape. Suddenly there was a peeling of wheels as our assailants sped off. We could see the action as we departed the scene. A Detroit police cruiser was right behind the fleeing bad guys. Police officers were leaning out the windows shooting at the men who had attacked us. We were shaken but unhurt. We returned to the command post. We never heard what happened to the people who shot at us. It was a scene right out of the Wild West. It happened in the City I grew up in. It was sad to see my city dying.

I will be adding 1967 riot stories as they come to mind. Any of you guys who survived the riot who has a story please send it to me at .

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"Fire Horses" book authored by firefighter R.J. Haig.


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