The 1967 Riot (an entry from Tom Hart)

I went to work that morning (July 23, 1967). Those of us at the big house in the 4th Battalion (Engine 5, Ladder 20, and Squad 2) had been expecting something to happen. It seemed like for several weeks, or even months, different types of incendiary devices were being tested in vacant structures in our Battalion. We had been quite busy. As I got to work we were gathered around the watch desk. We listened to the department radio talking about the action going on in the street. 21s crew was being pelted with rocks and bottles. We found out soon enough what it would be like for us. Engine 5 was dispatched to the second major fire of the riots. The fire was actually six blocks from the location we had been given. At the location we were sent to, a huge crowd seemed to appear out of nowhere. We had to move through the crowd to get to the fire. We ran a gauntlet of angry people that stretched for almost 4 blocks. They were throwing rocks, bottles, Molotov cocktails and anything they could throw at us. There were even a few shotgun blasts though none hit us. A block away from the fire we passed a police line. The fire was in the middle of a block containing storefronts with apartments above. One of the stores had been looted and set on fire. We had a hydrant directly across the street so it was a short stretch. We fought the fire with an interior attack like we would have done with any fire. We went inside and put the fire out. When we brought our fire hose out we discovered the cops were gone and the angry crowd was moving our way. Bill McDowell our boss told the engineer, Al Droscewicz, to unhook from the hydrant. He told me and Ray Light to get the line on the rig anyway we could so we could quickly leave the scene. We gladly did what our boss told us to do. We barely made it back to the apron of our quarters when we were dispatched to the same location we just left. We had to run that same gauntlet of rocks and bottles to get there again. I believe Ray Light was the first Firefighter injured during the riot. A brick came through the side window of our rig hitting him in the corner of the mouth. Ray remained with his company getting 10 stitches for his injury several days later. This time the fire encompassed the entire block. Lieutenant McDowell ordered us to fight the fire defensively from the street. He did not want us getting cut off from our rig in case we had to escape and quickly leave the scene. As I stepped off the rig I was hit by a large piece of concrete that was thrown from the rooftop of the building across the street. It mashed the helmet down on my head and dropped me to my knees. I had a severe headache for several days after that. The police returned to the area and offered us a measure of protection as we fought the fire. During the duration of the riot I was injured 4 times and came under gunfire on 11 occasions. The Firefighters who worked the riot did an outstanding job under extremely adverse conditions. Most of the guys who sustained injuries remained on duty and reported it in the company journal some time later. The dedication and valor of the Detroit Fire department was a shinning beacon for the citizens as a tragedy befell their city.

There will be additional stories from the riot in later additions of Fire Talk. What happened to Tom Hart and his running mates was a scenario that was common during the 1967 riot in Detroit.

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