Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Night Diamond REO Burned

1979 Lansing, Michigan

Lansing Journal October 31, 1979 photo
(Sent by  Lansing Library archivist).
My family and I were downstairs in the basement rec room watching TV and working on trick or treating costumes. It was nearing 7:30 and bedtime bath-and-story was nearing. Tomorrow was Halloween. My seven-year-old daughter had gone upstairs to retrieve something, and as she came downstairs she wore a puzzled and worried expression. Looking at me with doubt-filled eyes, she asked, "Should the sun be rising?"

Considering her manner I didn't question its absurdity but quick-stepped up the staircase. Looking through the north-facing dining room window, I saw a huge arc of sun-bright light on the horizon. It's cliche, I know, but my heart seemed to stop. Tree limbs and houses on the other side of Mt. Hope Avenue seemed like diminutive silhouettes against a colossal rising sun. Screaming down the staircase at Bill, I heard his feet thudding quickly upstairs to join me. Observing the scene outside the window, he told me to pack clothes while he gathered some irreplaceable family items. Within a half-hour we had the car packed and had also warned the neighbors. Outside the smell of smoke filled the air, but as the fire hadn't come nearer, we decided to go see what was ablaze.

We lived on the south side of Mt. Hope Avenue a block west of the Cedar Street intersection. Our three-story 1920 Dutch colonial house was the second structure on the west side of the street, next to Tom's Grocery Store on the corner. Our house blocked the view of all the other houses further down the block. On the northern side of Mt. Hope two blocks of houses stood before the remains of the Diamond Reo Plant, up until about three years previous, manufacturer of well-known truck brands, and much earlier cars like the REO Flying Cloud and REO Royal.

We crossed Mt. Hope and slowly walked through residential streets with our daughter and five-year-old son towards the huge bonfire north of us. It became obvious what was burning — the Diamond Reo plant. The closer we approached the more the night air held a rancid burning scent. We saw some residents removing their belongings from their houses, and others keeping a north-looking watch. Later we would learn sides of some of the houses nearest the blaze steamed from the heat, and windows became hot to the touch. Firemen had advised those owners to hose down their houses.

Diamond REO semi (Wikimedia Commons)

Known for producing one of the toughest trucks on the road, Diamond REO made semi-trailer trucks, fire engines, buses, heavy-duty trucks, and from 1915 to 1953, the REO Speed Wagon. (Yes, the band R E O Speedwagon-"Keep on Loving You" and "Can't Fight This Feeling" — was named after the truck.) Ranson Eli Olds, the founder of Oldsmobile, began the company in 1914 and used his initials for the company's name. Olds was an early automotive innovator, and this plant became one of the earliest car (and lawnmower) factories in the United States. White Motor Corporation bought REO in the 50s and merged it with Diamond T to form the Diamond REO Company. They were labeled the "World's Toughest Truck." Diamond REO fell on hard times in the seventies and had filed bankruptcy a few years ago which closed the plant. Parts of the thirty-eight-acre site were condemned. When traveling I loved to see the very identifiable front end of a Diamond REO truck on the road. I took great pleasure knowing they were made close to where I lived. This was probably not true, as I now believe some were made at another out-of-state site, but I thought them the best truck on the road. At this time, though, controversy stirred between historic preservationists and the city's leaders about the site's future.

It was a strange walk since the northern sky was so bright, but where we walked seemed extra dark. A few gawkers like us walked in the same direction, but not too many, others were busy emptying houses.

It was obvious the fire was way ahead of saving the buildings, but the numerous fire trucks and firemen worked to contain the fire from spreading to the residential neighborhoods surrounding the southern side of the area. The four lanes of Cedar Street contained the eastern side of the site, while a rail line and the Red Cedar River held the northern boundaries of Diamond REO. On Washington Avenue to the west of the plant's grounds were the headquarters and other buildings, which were not ablaze. We walked down Baker Street which formed Diamond REO's southern boundary and linked Washington Avenue to Cedar Street. Here the flashing lights of fire trucks and police cars lined the road all the way to Cedar and then north on Cedar. In the shadows created by the bright light of the fire, we saw the tall spire of one fire truck shooting water on the blaze, later identified as the new 'Firebird,' a high-pressure rig capable of shooting thousands of gallons of water. We gazed in amazement at the huge embers of burning materials flying into the night sky and stayed on Baker Street's southern side so as not to impede fire workers. Reaching Cedar, we walked back home certain we would not have to evacuate our house.

Today, we, along with others living in the nearby neighborhoods, would have been evacuated because of all the asbestos, petrol chemicals, and other toxic substances carried into the night sky on embers and in the billowing smoke. The cloud of smoke lingered into Halloween, and we would learn from the city's newspaper, The Lansing Journal (from which some of this information has been taken from library archives), that arson probably started the fire sometime around 6:30 PM and caused its fast spread. Demolition workers had been inside the five-story production plant they were demolishing as late as 5:20 PM the night of the fire.

Because of the condition of the building that stretched nearly three blocks, once the blaze was under control, and it was ascertained no one was within the structure, the sixty-plus firemen pulled back and let the fire burn itself out. The company was already dead, this was a funeral pyre of the earthly remains, and there was no use in endangering anyone's life. The deathwatch would continue for another twenty-four hours, but Diamond REO was gone.

1919 REO ad from Wikimedia Commons.

Click here more for more on REO:

Note 1: I have heard rumors of a WWII tunnel from the Diamond REO site to the Capital building, which worried many people with knowledge of the tunnel; and that helicopters flew over the city to watch where the embers might land. Another rumor was of the presence of fire departments from as far away as Grand Rapids, Jackson, and Ann Arbor. I have found no evidence to support any of this information, but if a reader does, please contact me.

Note 2: I originally planned to post this much earlier on the date of the fire, but I wanted permission from the Lansing Journal to use one of their photos of the night of the fire. After three phone calls to answering devices and two emails, I've heard nothing so I gave up. The Lansing Public Library provided the photos.