While Marisela Rodriguez watched flames destroy her sister’s home, Detroit firefighters frantically searched for a functioning hydrant.
"They had to go all the way to Livernois," she says, before finding one that worked.
Water was shut off to at least two hydrants on Military near Michigan, where a family’s home burned January 9. Firefighters were forced to use a hydrant two streets away. Rodriguez and others living in the neighborhood say they had called the city water department to have the main fixed several times since December 28 — 12 days before the fire.
Joan Gylaski, who lives about 10 houses from the one that burned, says she called the city twice about the broken water main.
"It was so bad cars couldn’t get through," she says. Water gushed onto the street for days, and when the snowstorm hit just after New Year’s Day, Gylaski says the water turned to ice, causing one car accident and a few near misses.
James Heath, assistant director of water operations for the City of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, admits that complaints were made about the broken water main, but he says he doubts they were lodged 12 days before the fire broke out.
"I recall looking at records, and I don’t think that it had been that long," he says.
Heath said more than 130 Detroit water mains broke during the recent cold spell and that the city first fixes those in neighborhoods that are without water. Families living on Military say they did have some water, though pressure levels were low. Heath also says the fire department should have known that the hydrants were not working because they were marked "out of service."
But one fireman, who helped put out the house fire and spoke on condition that he not be identified, says, "There was no indication that they were messed up."
The firefighter says it took 10 to 15 minutes before firefighters could find a functioning hydrant, though they arrived promptly. About 10 firefighters were in the house with a small water line connected to the fire truck, he says, while they waited for the hydrant hose.
"The guys were taking a beating," said the firefighter, though none were seriously injured.
The couple and their four children who lived in the house also escaped injury.
However, the firefighter also said that the house probably could not have been saved even if the hydrants had been working. He said that the fire was caused by overburdening the house’s electrical wiring. "Extension cords were everywhere," he said.
The firefighter said he is not surprised that the water department did not respond to calls from neighbors about the broken line.
"The water department is terrible," he said. "They are all screwed up." He added that he and other firefighters repeatedly complain to the department about broken water mains that don’t get fixed.
The family members, who lost their home, are living with relatives and could not be reached for comment. Neighbors said they did not have homeowners insurance.
"I just don’t want it to happen again," says Rodriguez. "It could be any one of us. I got 10 kids." The water main was fixed the day after the fire — and after news of the incident was broadcast on television.
"I think we would still have the problem if my sister’s house didn’t burn down," says Rodriguez.