Hydrants high among Detroit's sad problems

Author: Rod Meloni, Local 4 Business Editor, @RodMeloni
Published On: Jan 28 2013 06:46:28 PM EST
DETROIT -

Here is one of the city of Detroit’s dirty little deadly secrets.

While driving around inside the city limits in January, take a second and look at the fire hydrants. You will begin to see a pattern. Many will have a little yellow collar telling you the hydrant is out of order.

You will also see some of those hydrants looking perfectly normal and others will be caked with ice.

The fact that there is a collar at all is a function of the Fire Department doing its job.

When not fighting fires, the city’s fire department is tasked with checking hydrants.

It is the City Water Department’s job to fix those hydrants. It doesn’t take long while speaking with a Detroit firefighter to learn their least favorite but most participated in sport is running up and down streets trying to find a working fire hydrant any time of year, but in the winter it is particularly difficult.

Of course it’s important to note that when the fire hydrant does not work near your house your family is put into serious danger and it can turn deadly.

We learned about this first hand over the weekend.

In the early morning hours of Saturday - Jan. 26, 2013 - a fire was reported on Promenade Street near city airport.

An 8-month-old baby by the name of Akira Capri Williams died in the blaze.

She had been brought to the home of family friends by her mother and she was sleeping when the flames broke out.

Half a dozen people either jumped out windows or were pulled to safety by neighbors, but the fire was too strong near the baby and no one could get in.

Firefighters made it to the scene and discovered a broken hydrant across the street and had to drag hoses an entire city block after finding one of the other hydrants on the street actually worked. One of the eyewitnesses who pulled an older man from the burning building provided us with that information. It wasn’t until late this afternoon we heard back from the Detroit Fire Department the other side of the story.

It turns out all of the above information is correct.

But because some fire vehicles carry upwards of 500 gallons of water with them there was water put on that fire right away and firefighters found the baby within 90 seconds of getting on scene. There was some confusion where the child was exactly in the house which caused the delay.

They whisked her out of the house in a blanket and brought her to St. John Hospital. She died on the way.

Her family is desperately sad, without the funds to bury her and is counting on the kindness of strangers for help paying for this sad funeral.

The Cantrell Funeral Home in the city is handling the arrangements.

While it matters not to the Williams family the broken hydrant did not impact their child’s death, it still points to a preventable situation that truly does endanger public safety.

Now, to the city’s credit, when Local 4 went to the home on Promenade we found a Detroit Water Department crew replacing all of the broken fire hydrants on the street.

They spent the day making certain the hydrants had new copper piping, that they were in full working order and would not gather water inside and freeze solid, thus requiring that collar. The water department admitted that yes it did take Akira’s death to get the hydrants on the street fixed. It turns out the collar on the broken hydrant had been placed there by firefighters earlier in the day. That hydrant had to have been broken for more than one day!

Here is the back story that has plagued me for years. In 2006 I did a series of reports about this very issue.

I recall back then that something on the order of half of all Detroit fire hydrants were frozen solid.

Homes were burning, people were getting severely injured for the lack of water in dealing with house fires and no one seemed particularly upset about it. Look at the City’s aging housing stock and you know it is made largely with tinder dry wood and brick.

These homes, occupied or abandoned, burn like highway safety flares. We showed street after street, hydrant after ice caked hydrant, not working. It did not register. We embarrassed the water department for its utter lack of regard for residents.

We even went to inspect the fire hydrants in front of City official’s homes. The hydrant in front of the then fire commissioner’s home carried no yellow collar, the one in front of the Manoogian Mansion when Kwame Kilpatrick was mayor was working perfectly. The hydrant in front of then water department Chief Victor Mercado’s home was in perfect working order as well. It was in West Bloomfield! Yet, few seemed to care. In 2007 we again revisited the problem, found the same appalling conditions, found people trying to sue the city for allowing the problem to persist, nothing! It was as if Detroit did not care. We stopped doing the story.

So, Monday, I had the displeasure of revisiting this issue, sad to see very little has changed. Detroit’s firefighters are nothing short of heroes. They are left to attack fires as if one armed wall paper hangers.

Their equipment is old, outmoded, rickety, dangerously held together with the proverbial spit and bailing wire.

From what I can tell, they are doing the impossible for a beleaguered city. The water department does not seem to carry the same heft.

It is a revenue generating department and does not seem it lacks the equipment to do the job the fire department does. This is where the system seems to break down. And still, it does not appear the city and its residents are particularly concerned.

It stands to reason that there are probably more serious, immediate threats like violent crime and joblessness grabbing everyone’s attention. I can’t help but think part of “public safety” includes working fire hydrants.

It’s an exceptionally sad testament to how far Detroit has fallen. It is also confounding! Here is why.

The other story I covered today was the highly emotionally charged hearing about whether the State, [which runs a first class state park network] should take over the horribly run down Belle Isle and run it .

Some people were so angry, so enraged they had to be escorted from the hearing by police. I sat there and wondered why that issue literally has people up in arm when there are frozen fire hydrants for miles across town posing an infinitely more existential threat.

The how and why of frozen hydrants and that lack of concern all remain a mystery to me.

Still, the city of Detroit plods on painfully another sad day.