Burning Down the House

Fiery tales from a city near collapse.

East Cleveland Cleveland public services firefighters crazy Cleveland suburbs
Northeast Ohio's second-busiest fire department is now mowing lawns near you. - Walter Novak
Northeast Ohio's second-busiest fire department is now mowing lawns near you.
Chay Walker lives on the sixth floor of a building in East Cleveland. She wonders when fire will bring it down, taking her three children with it.

Walker's fears stem from the small hours of July 5, a humid morn just after midnight, when she was sitting outside, evading the baked-brick heat of her apartment. She smelled smoke. So she walked a few blocks over to Belmar Road, where a house was beginning to simmer.

"It was a little bitty fire," she says. "It looked like it could be tamed with an extinguisher." So she walked back home.

Ron Patterson, the neighbor who called 911, says it took 30-40 minutes for firemen to arrive.

From her stoop on Superior Avenue, Walker could see the smoke blossom. She returned to find firefighters standing in the yard, assessing what to do. By then there was a crowd. "Some residents were asking, 'Aren't you gonna do something?'"

That's when firemen removed plywood covering a window. And that's when all hell broke loose, says Walker. "I saw Backdraft. I know you're not supposed to feed a fire oxygen."

The house erupted in a volcano of flames "shooting up in the air. The wind was blowing. It was getting worse and worse."

But the hydrant across the street wasn't working. Hadn't for years. Its stump is bent sideways, as if hit by a car. The hydrants on nearby Superior had no pressure, says Walker -- the connected hoses flat and waterless. They finally found an operable hydrant down Belmar.

But by this time, the fire had migrated to the second floor, a nearby garage, and a neighboring apartment building. Treetops were aflame. Yet East Cleveland firemen were forced to battle from the ground. Their ladder truck was out of commission.

"The only thing that saved it was that there was brick buildings on either side," says Patterson.

Euclid arrived with water. Another city provided a ladder truck. At its peak, Walker estimates that 50 firemen were assaulting the blaze. "But it never would have gotten this bad if the hydrants were working," she says.

Today, the home is a charred hull, its roofless walls stretching skyward. Fortunately, this is East Cleveland: The house was abandoned, as was the neighboring building, which is now accented by blown-out windows and crispy black sills.

Unfortunately, this is East Cleveland: Walker fears it will happen again -- and this time require funeral arrangements.

A few weeks ago, the suburb, as it is prone to do, made news with a fresh round of weirdness. Flammably speaking, it has the second-busiest department in the region, battling 30-50 full-blown fires a year. But Mayor Eric Brewer thought his charges didn't have enough to do. So he assigned them groundskeeping duties mowing grass in the weed fields known as city parks.

Perhaps it's what you do in Ohio's poorest city, which has been on life support for decades thanks to chaotic and corrupt government. It's a town where virtually nothing functions, with indictments so frequent prosecutors likely have a form letter where they just fill in the blanks. Earlier this month, a cop was convicted of abetting a suspect's escape. It was just another day in Ohio's scientific experiment to see how far a city can fall.

But if East Cleveland is collapsing, the fire department isn't, says Acting Captain Douglas Theobald. He won't talk about his new lawn-mowing duties. Revenge is one of the few things still working here, and it comes swift and sure to the outspoken employee. He will, however, defend his department's actions on Belmar.

"The house was free-burning upon arrival," Theobald says. And since they burn at anywhere from 300 to 1,500 degrees, removing plywood was the only way to ventilate that heat so firemen could get near. All but one hydrant was working, he adds.

But he understands how neighbors could see it: "The public sees chaos, and it actually is chaos, but we're organized in perfect harmony with what we're doing . . . I always tell people that one minute at a fire seems like an hour."

He assures residents that East Cleveland has a "professional fire department." They certainly get their practice. But it's doubtful anyone is soothed by his words.

Neighboring 'burbs have pacts with the city requiring they come to each others' aid. But with East Cleveland's firemen mowing grass -- and perhaps soon lifeguarding at pools -- don't expect them to be combat-ready. "I'm wondering if requests to my organization for mutual aid are going to increase or be abused because we have a partner that is chronically understaffed or overworked," Cleveland Heights Chief Kevin Mohr told The Plain Dealer.

In Euclid, downtime is spent servicing hydrants and inspecting companies. Firefighting is a job that requires days or weeks of preparation, then split-second precision when the alarm bell rings. "If you're running a lawn mower in a field 100 yards from your truck, you're certainly not going to respond right away," says Euclid Chief Thomas Cosgriff.

Yet he follows the municipal code of not speaking ill of a neighbor. When asked if he'd trade his job for the same in East Cleveland, however, you know where his feelings lie. "Probably not."

At firehouse.com, where the nation's firefighters talk shop, they're far less polite. News of the mowing duties has been met by incredulousness, derision, and a certain resignation. One fireman puts it best: "The sad part is that it will probably take a multiple-fatality fire for someone to realize that the East Cleveland Fire Department should not be mowing lawns."

Walker won't wait for her kids to be included in that tally. She was born and raised in East Cleveland, still remembers when the city "had playgrounds and everything." But she can no longer extend her faith.

She's moving to Painesville.

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