My Story

Eating Smoke

Adventures As A Volunteer Fire Fighter

By James Donahue

When working as a bureau reporter in South Haven, Michigan, I began giving glossy prints of fire scenes to the fire department as a courtesy and in appreciation for the department’s cooperation in allowing me to “get the story.” The chief, Les Olmstead, liked my pictures so much he coaxed me into becoming a volunteer fire fighter and regular photographer for the department. I accepted.

My adventures as a volunteer fire fighter did not just involve taking pictures of burning buildings. Almost from the start I was involved in training and was actively fighting fires. I was assigned “bunkers,” or all the heavy rubber pants, coats, gloves and helmets fire fighters wear when involved in the dirty, dangerous work of snuffing out structure fires. I was also given a Plectron radio receiver for my house so I received immediate calls every time the department was summoned.

We didn’t just fight fires in the city. Our department was under contract to go into the surrounding townships and sometimes we joined neighboring fire departments and assisted in fighting major fires. We held regular fire drills, sometimes actually starting fires in abandoned buildings to get practice in entering burning buildings and extinguishing the fire within.

I remember that my first experience at fighting fire involved a grass fire that got out of control on a windy spring day and spread to a large thicket of brush and trees. I was given a portable fire extinguisher called an Indian. This was essentially a metal tank of water that strapped on my back with a rubber hose and a hand operated pump that discharged a stream of water. This, plus all of the heavy rubber fire fighting gear I was wearing, was a lot of weight to be carrying as we ran through the grass, chasing flames that were racing about as fast as we could run. It was strenuous work, and the danger was all around us. We had to be careful that we didn’t get ourselves trapped between two fire fronts converging where we were standing.

We had a jeep with a water tank that was designed to fight this kind of fire. I remember the guys on the jeep got the vehicle caught in a double front of fire. We had to pump and spray like crazy to help them beat down the flames so they could get them and the vehicle out of there.

After we got that fire out, we all returned to the fire hall to wash down our equipment and get ready for the next call. Then, I learned, it was a custom to gather in the big kitchen on the second floor to have coffee and maybe other treats while we shared stories about what we had just done. The camaraderie among fire fighters was amazingly rich. And because I had been with them, I found myself part of the group. I had just gone through a baptism by fire. As exhausted as I was, I found that I was exhilarated and extremely proud to be with this room full of firemen at that moment.

South Haven had a very active and busy fire department. Hardly a week passed that we didn’t get at least one or two calls. We responded to car fires, house fires, large industrial fires, barn fires, lots of grass fires and once we even were called upon to get a cat out of a very tall tree. That cat had been trapped at the top of the tree for several days before we got the call. We had to bring the oldest truck in the barn, a giant of a ladder truck that carried an extension ladder long enough to scale the tallest buildings in the city. And it was tall enough to reach that cat. That was one of the few times I ever saw that truck in operation.

After joining the fire department my morning routine changed. After collecting the news from the police and calling it in, I always stopped for my coffee at the fire hall. Most of the other fire fighters gathered there too, if they could get off their jobs. Of course the regular full-time fire fighters, doing their time at the hall, always had a big pot of coffee constantly brewing.

There were a lot of fire calls, but some of them stand more vividly in my memory than the others. I especially remember the successful rescue of a man from his burning house, and how our Captain, Charles Tourtelotte, pulled him out of his burning living room, gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and saved his life.

South Haven had some large old resort buildings on its north side that had seen their hey-day in the 1930s, when steamboats brought wealthy tourists to and from the city from Chicago. Some of the resorts were still operating but others were large vacant building complexes. One massive building known as the North Shore Pavilion, a former dance hall, had been turned into a roller rink but I do not recall ever going in that building, or if it was being used.

One Fourth of July weekend, after we had watched a wonderful fireworks display from the beach, we were rousted from our beds in the middle of the night. An excited voice on the radio announced: “The North Shore Pavilion is on fire!” I could see the flames and smell the smoke as I raced out the front door of our house to get in my car. When I arrived at the scene it was obvious that this was going to be a major fire. It was a large building and the fire had a good start before anyone noticed it. I did my job, running around the burning structure in the dark, snapping pictures from every angle, then put on my bunkers, grabbed a hose, and spent the rest of the night holding on a heavy four-inch line with other men as the heat from that blaze burned our faces.

The Pavilion was a total loss. The best we could do was to prevent the fire from jumping to nearby buildings and taking out a whole city block of buildings. The next morning when I developed my film we had a surprise. The pictures clearly showed something none of us had noticed in the excitement of first arriving at the scene. There had been fire burning at both ends of the building, but no fire in the middle. From the evidence in the photographs, it was clear that the fire had been a case of arson.

The following winter we had another major fire in a resort, this time a complex of large buildings a few blocks away from where the Pavilion had stood. It was a cold winter night and a harsh wind was blowing from the west, right off Lake Michigan when we got a call that one of the largest of about five structures in that complex, the one standing parallel to the lake front, was on fire. When I arrived the fire was mostly on the first floor of what I recall was a three-story building, and it was quickly spreading upward into the second floor. I grabbed my camera, ran around the building, and shot pictures on all sides of the building.

That fire also had a good start, and the wind howling off the lake fanned it into a hot blaze that could not be stopped. We were hampered that night by a large concrete swimming pool in the middle of the resort grounds that we could not see in all of the smoke. There was a constant danger of someone accidentally falling into the pool. The fire jumped to a second building, and then a third. Soon we had three large buildings all burning at once. We battled fire all night. At about the time we thought we had it knocked down so the other buildings were spared, Chief Olmstead had a couple of the men go through the main building by the street just to make sure everything was in order. They were shocked to discover a fire burning in the basement. No one could explain how that happened. In the end, we lost all of the buildings in the complex.

The next day when I developed my film, there was yet another surprise. When I shot pictures of a porch of the building on the beach, where the first fire broke out, it was clearly seen that something had been thrown from outside the building through a sliding glass door. There was fire all over the floor beyond the door. It looked like someone tossed a Molotov cocktail through that door. That picture, and the fact that the fire department discovered fire in a fourth building where it should not have been, generated evidence of yet another case of arson. Somebody was attempting to see the whole complex to an insurance company.

The third major fire that I was involved in battling occurred in the downtown area at a popular restaurant known as the Holiday. It was not linked to the chain of restaurants and motels by that name. This place offered very good food and there was a large dining room that served as a regular meeting place for the Lions and Rotary Clubs and other civic groups in the community. I had been invited to attend many of these functions when guest speakers of news value were on the agenda.

The Holiday was located in a large, two-story building that had been on that corner so long it was obvious that it had been used for various other businesses over the years. It had gone through extensive remodeling and then more remodeling so was filled with false ceilings and wood paneled walls that made great tinder for a fire. We did not know just how much trouble all of that remodeling was going to generate until the day the building caught fire.

They said the fire originated somewhere in the basement. I remember going down a basement stairway with other fire fighters. There we entered a smoke-filled hallway where we made our way toward some very extreme heat just ahead of us. The smoke was so thick we could not see the fire but we sure felt it. Finally the leader of our team decided to turn on the water from our four-inch line. The moment the water hit that blaze the fire roared back over our heads as if it was bellowing from the mouth of a great dragon. We all hit the floor at the same instant. I remember the strange appearance of that flame. It looked like pillows of orange separated by blackness. The heat from it was so intense we all retreated from that hallway as fast as we could move. We knew then we had a monster to fight that day.

The fire was moving up through the building. We knew this because the walls throughout the building were getting too hot to touch, Yet when we used axes and attempted to break through the walls to reach the fire, we ran into fake double walls and dropped ceilings. As hard as the fire fighters worked that day, they could not find the root of that fire until it began breaking out all over the building.

I remember standing in that large community room and looking at a beautiful piano standing in the middle of the floor. I knew by then that the building was going to be lost and suggested to some of the other firemen that we roll that piano out into the street to save it. No one else seemed to care. The piano burned up with the building.

We spent a long tiring day battling that fire as it broke through the roof and slowly consumed the entire building. We turned our hoses on the firewall of a large brick building adjoining it that housed the local theater, and kept the fire from spreading. The battle against that fire raged throughout the day and into the night. Restaurants in town brought us coffee, doughnuts and other things to eat and drink as the hours passed. It was one of the most tiring fires I was involved in battling. That night I had to get away to get my film developed and my story written. It was the arrangement I had between the newspaper and the fire department. The next morning the men were still on the scene, still pouring water on the smoldering ruins that had been the Holiday.

Yet another major fire that I vividly remember was the blaze that gutted the IGA grocery store. The thing that was funny about this fire was that the store was located directly across the street from the fire hall. Even stranger was that it started on a warm summer night when the fire hall doors were open and some of the regulars were sitting on their chairs in the front of the building.

The fire started at a meat wrapping machine at the rear of the store and had been smoldering for a while, filling the store with so much smoke that once the flames began building, the front windows appeared dark because of all of the smoke. They said they were looking right at the store when suddenly the front plate glass windows burst out and the building was suddenly ablaze.

That fire was so hot and burning throughout a long cinder block building that had no side windows. The only way we had to get at the heart of that fire was to climb to the flat roof, cut a hole and then hit the fire from above. I remember being on that roof as the fire raged right under our feet. The heat was coming up through my boots as we pulled the heavy hose to the roof. Once they opened the roof and gained access to the fire below, the guys brought up a gadget I had never seen before. They called it an octopus. This thing attached to the end of the fire hose and when turned on, it acted like a super lawn sprinkler, only it sent water shooting in every direction at once. Once we had it in place and turned on the water, the fire was under control within minutes.

Walking through that burned out building once the fans had extracted all of the smoke was a strange experience. My wife and I had frequented that grocery store and were familiar with just about everything in it. Now it was a ruined mess. The cans and boxes of food were still somewhat in place on the shelves, if they hadn’t been knocked to the floor by high pressure hoses. But everything was blackened and of no value. It was a ghostly place to visit. The meat department, where the fire started, was totally gutted. But in our search, we found the machine that started the fire. The switch was still in the “on” position.