Detroit Loses One of Its Finest

Death in the line of duty sometimes comes swiftly and unexpectedly. On November 15th,2008 Firefighter Walt Harris lost his life protecting the lives and property of the citizens of the City of Detroit. My heartfelt condolences to Firefighter Harris’ family. I want to share the following excellent column, about Walt Harris, submitted by Bill McGraw of The Detroit Free Press.

Detroit Firefighter Dies in Early Blaze

By Bill McGraw-Free Press Staff Writer-November 15,2008

Detroit Firefighter, Husband, Father of six, Minister, Motorcyclist, Real estate agent, Mentor, Mediator, Engine-house cook. Walter Harris was a busy man, and his family and friends say those descriptions only begin to capture someone they remember wrapping his huge arms around them in loving hugs, shaking with loud belly laughs and asking, before meals: “You mind if we say grace?"

His son, James Hill Harris, also a Detroit Firefighter, said his father was  “big, strong, a protector. He showed me what a real man is."
Harris, 37, died early Saturday morning when a roof collapsed on him during a fire in a vacant house on Detroit’s east side. Officials said the blaze was deliberately set. Four other Firefighters were treated and released at Receiving Hospital.

Harris was a 17 year DFD veteran who had spent his entire career in the 109-year old station on E. Grand Boulevard west of Mt. Elliott that houses Rescue Squad 3 and Engine Co. 23. He was to have been promoted to sergeant in the coming weeks.

“I have his new badge in my locker," said Sgt. Mike Nevin, as he stood in the station’s garage, surrounded by Firefighters who cried, talked quietly and stared into the distance. On one wall hung Harris’ bunker coat and pants, torn and smudged with soot.

Harris was over six feet tall and weighed about 270 pounds. Verdine Day, vice-president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association, called him a “jolly bear." But he was the kind of Firefighter others counted on when things got rough.

Harris responded to thousands of fires during his career. His last blaze broke out in a dilapidated house on Kirby east of Sheridan around 5 a.m.
“Fire was blowing out of the windows on the second floor," said Verlin Williams, who was riding Squad 3. “It was a basic, routine fire."

Engine 23, with Harris on board, and Squad 3 arrived at the scene, joined by two other pumpers, a ladder truck and a battalion chief. As usual in such fires, an additional crew stood by in case Firefighters encountered trouble inside the house.

Engine 23 fired a surge of water from its deck gun, and knocked back the fire. Unlike many fire departments, Detroit crews routinely storm a burning house, and in this case, Firefighters advanced a hose up a narrow stairway to the second floor attic. Lt. Steve Kirschner of Engine 23 said Harris was the second man up the stairs.

Kirschner said Firefighters were dousing hotspots of flame in the attic and starting to mop up when he heard a “creak"- the sound of snapping wood. “The sign of danger," Kirschner said.

Jeff Hamm, who was standing next to Harris, said he felt a small piece of wood hit his helmet.

Kirschner added: “Before I could even say. `Get Out,`- BOOM!- it came down."

The wood buried several Firefighters, but they extricated themselves. Kirschner was knocked down the stairs.

Hamm, his eyes rimmed with red, said the roof dropped around him. “I fell forward. The guys who were around me were gone. It happened so fast. Maybe Walt pushed me. I don’t know. I don’t understand why I’m still here.
As the crews collected themselves, officers took a head count. Firefighters called out their names, and they quickly realized Harris was missing.

The heavy wood had trapped him face down on the floor. Harris’ colleagues raced back to the attic, and working frantically with saws, tools and their hands, dug him out several minutes later. They rushed him to Receiving Hospital in an EMS ambulance, his fellow Firefighters performing emergency procedures as the truck raced to the hospital.

The exact cause of death was not known Saturday.

“He was strong as a bull," said Jim Montgomery, a Firefighter and Harris’ friend. “He was the guy you needed when someone else was buried."
Montgomery recalled Harris the motorcyclist who bought a Honda Valkyrie on Ebay from someone in Washington state, then flew there, paid the owner and drove it home. Harris said the bike was meant for him because its body was customized with a quotation from the bible.

Harris, who lived in Sterling Heights, served as a minister at Community Christian Fellowship Church on E. Outer Drive near Gratiot in Detroit. He also became the first Firefighter to become a member of the department’s chaplain corps.

His son, James Hill Harris, said his father in the pulpit combined passion with strength. “He called himself  `A warrior for God,` he said.

A number of associates said Harris, as a Senior Firefighter, essentially ran the fire house. He settled disputes, offered advice, taught the craft to young Firefighters and served up his crab-stuffed salmon, among other dishes.

“He was the glue that held us together," said Hamm, “He taught me everything I know."

Added Williams: “He was always there to lend a hand."

While Saturday was a day of mourning, the context of the fatal fire on Kirby was hardly lost on other Firefighters.

Detroit has a huge problem with arson fires in abandoned buildings, some of which are home to squatters. More than half of all fires in 2007 were ruled suspicious, meaning there was no apparent cause, and many of those are assumed to be deliberate.

The last Firefighter to die in the line of duty, Joe Torkos, was driving Engine 17 to a deliberately set fire in an abandoned house when he died in a traffic accident in 2007.

On top of the problems of arson and decay, budget woes have forced the city to cut back on the fire department. Officials de-activate several rigs every day because of money and manpower shortages, meaning more work for the rest of that day’s crews.

There are about a 1000 persons in the departments fire-fighting division, and Dan MacNamara, fire union president, said 10 percent of them are out with injuries. A DFD sergeant is recovering from surgery after he fell off a roof recently and landed on a fence.

“This is part of the job that people don’t know about," said Eric Fett, another of Harris’ colleagues.

They say, “You're a Firefighter. You get to sleep at work."

"One stupid fire. Gone forever."

Anyone with information about the fire should call arson investigators at 313-596-2940. Officials have posted a reward up to $5000.

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