By Paula Wethington
At 6:23 a.m. Saturday Dec. 31, 2016, smoke alarms started sounding in a block of office / retail / apartment units in downtown Monroe, Michigan.
I was the reporter on call that weekend for The Monroe News. I woke up to emergency chatter on the police scanner that indicated there was a working fire somewhere, and got dressed. By 7:10 a.m., I was downtown. The fire was one block from the newspaper office; a quirk of circumstances that worked in my favor and here’s why:
A breaking news situation of this level normally is the hands-on work of at least three people at The Monroe News. First, there would be a reporter and a photographer sent to the scene, one or both of those who would also shoot video. In addition, someone would be at a computer handling website production along with monitoring and answering social media conversations. Depending on circumstances, there may also be an editor coordinating schedules and other logistics. This is all in the “breaking news” stage.
The first-day reporting on this fire was all mine except for a few freelance photos.
By the time I got a message one of our freelance photographers was in the neighborhood, I already had posted two videos, several photos and a developing story on the website. I was only waiting for an interview with the fire chief. I asked the freelancer to email me some pictures and she did so later in the day. After I saw her images, I realized she captured the scene from a second floor window across the street. We had different vantage points.
Of note: I beat the news competition by an hour and a half with our first posts on Twitter and Facebook; and by at least an hour with the first posting on our website. The “second on the scene” credit goes to Monroe County Radio. Most other media outlets were two hours behind. One of the TV stations grabbed two of my photos and a summary of what happened, crediting The Monroe News.
Even while still on the scene, I handled a community uproar on our Facebook page. Someone criticized the city’s policy of cross-training police officers to assist the fire department via a comment of “idiot cops fighting the fire.” Another person contacted us via the message box with a request to delete that thread. Instead, I tagged the critic on our page and asked “… there are three fire departments still on scene. Our reporter is standing on Monroe St. right now. Would you like to update or delete your comment?” My response got dozens of “likes.”
This is the news report in its Saturday night version. Because it was a holiday weekend, the next print edition was Monday morning. The additional paragraph I added to the print report was a report from the owner of the bookstore next door that she was closed until further notice and hoped to get into her shop Tuesday for an assessment.
The reporter who usually covers the business beat and city hall handled the followup coverage.
Downtown Monroe fire
My story as it appears with time stamp of 7:02 p.m. Dec. 31:
By Paula Wethington
The cause of the fire early this morning in the downtown Monroe building at 40 S. Monroe St., between Front and First Sts., is not likely to be determined until Monday or Tuesday.
Monroe Fire Chief Rob Wight explained late today that the investigation is on hold is because water needs to be pumped out of the basement before firefighters can get a good look at what happened.
The three-story building with a basement was once the home of Flips and Kicks, and is between the Book Nook and Monroe Optical storefronts.
Smoke alarms sounded about 6:20 a.m. All residents of the apartments in that block, where the buildings are adjacent to each other, were evacuated and no injuries were reported.
Off duty personnel for City of Monroe Police and Fire Departments were called to assist those on shift, according to Monroe County Central Dispatch reports. Frenchtown Fire Department, Monroe Township Fire Department, LaSalle Township Fire Department, DTE Energy and Monroe Community Ambulance also were on scene or on standby.
“The guys made a pretty good effort,” Chief Wight related.
But given the fact the fire started in the basement, it was difficult to reach and deal with. The fire was out by 11 a.m.; however, firefighters remained in the neighborhood until 3:30 p.m. to continue putting out hot spots.
Once he had a chance to assess the damage, Chief Wight said there was fire damage in the basement and first floor of the former gymnastics studio building. Water damage is on the second floor.
Smoke had spread into the apartment area and toward nearby buildings; but the fire itself was contained. There’s “not a lot” of smoke and water damage at The Book Nook bookstore next door, the chief said, but there is some.
Restoration and cleanup contractors started work this afternoon. The building windows have been boarded up, yellow safety tape is blocking the sidewalk.
The American Red Cross reports it is assisting seven families who lived in the apartments in the upper floors of that downtown block. In addition, the Red Cross arranged for canteen service from Tim Hortons and Pilot gas station for the crews on scene.
Brian Wilson is among the neighbors who live in the Front Street apartments above the office and retail storefronts. He said he smelled smoke, thought the oven was on. And then fire alarms started sounding.
Tara Schmitt, who also lives in that block, said she was outside the apartment hallway entrance on Front Street, smoking a cigarette. Then she smelled smoke that was obviously from a fire and wondered what was going on.
When the alarms sounded, she tried to look for her 8-year-old male cat, but hadn’t found him after about an hour.
Another neighbor, Caleb Winckowski, also was awakened by the commotion – once he assessed the situation, he realized he had just enough time to get dressed and leave.
Another woman who was among those huddled in the corners or sitting in parked cars on Front St. to warm up in the 36-degree temperatures was Tracy Sullivan of Arizona. She’s visiting her daughter, Paige Thompson, who lives in that block of apartments.
Ms. Sullivan said she was concerned that the apartment area started filling with smoke before her daughter’s smoke alarms sounded.
During the firefighting efforts, several nearby streets were blocked to traffic. Those locations included Monroe St. between Front and First., which is where most of the emergency vehicles set up. Another fire truck was in the alley behind that row of buildings.
In addition, First St. between Cass and Monroe St. was blocked off because one of the fire hoses snaked down the street to the hydrant at First and Cass.
Shout out from TV 11
Here’s a screen shot of my photos and recap of the news report on WTOL TV 11’s website.