Washington Road residents rally around fire victims

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published April 10, 2018

 Handmade lawn signs like this one can be found throughout the 500 block of Washington Road in Grosse Pointe City, where residents are showing support for their neighbors after a devastating fire last month.

Handmade lawn signs like this one can be found throughout the 500 block of Washington Road in Grosse Pointe City, where residents are showing support for their neighbors after a devastating fire last month.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

GROSSE POINTE CITY — Tragedies have a way of uniting people, but the residents of the 500 block of Washington Road in Grosse Pointe City had an advantage over most neighborhoods — they were already unusually close-knit.

In the wake of devastating house fires the night of March 26 that claimed three homes and left a senior woman and a couple with two children homeless, the neighbors have rallied around each other, with many lawns sprouting hand-drawn signs of love and support such as “Washington Strong.”

“We’re really close, all of us on this block,” said resident Katy Walsh. Hers is one of four families within a roughly one-block radius that have the last name of Walsh, but none of them are related.

But while the Walsh families — and their other neighbors — might not be blood relatives, there’s a sense of family that runs through the block, something that residents say has been especially evident in recent weeks.

As flames and smoke — bolstered by a brisk wind — billowed out of the homes, neighbors did what they could to help.

“It’s a community — that’s what we do,” explained Washington resident Frances Banka.

One man is said to have tried to go into the home of the elderly woman to rescue her cat, only to be held back by firefighters because of dangerous conditions; the cat was later rescued by a firefighter, treated at a local animal hospital and then reunited with its owner.

“It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Banka said of the powerful blaze.

Public safety officers and firefighters from eight local departments worked the scene for hours to get it under control, managing to keep it from devouring a fourth house. The cause of the fire was still under investigation at press time, but it is believed to have started in the center house, which was vacant at the time while undergoing renovation and was nearly ready to be placed on the market.

Walsh said some of the neighbors grabbed their own garden hoses and worked to create a damp barrier to keep the fire from spreading even further.

“It’s just a really special neighborhood,” said Walsh, noting that besides an annual block party in October, they have progressive dinners and a book club. When someone in a family is sick or injured, neighbors are quick to prepare meals and offer other comfort and assistance to the family. When a neighbor died, other residents honored her memory by placing luminarias in front of her home.

It’s the kind of neighborhood where everyone knows everyone else, where parents know neighbors can watch their kids in a pinch. In an era when people seem increasingly disconnected from each other, Washington is a throwback to a time when people sat on front porches and were on a first-name basis with the folks down the block.    

The displaced fire victims are said to be staying with family members in the area as they start the long and difficult process of rebuilding their homes and their lives. But even in light of having lost everything, neighbors say the fire victims were thinking not of themselves, but of others. Instead of donations to help them get back on their feet, neighbors say the victims have asked people to give to the American Red Cross — whose Sound the Alarm program installs thousands of free smoke detectors in cities around the country — or the Grosse Pointe Public Library, which has an outreach program for seniors.

“We have been through a lot together on this block,” Walsh said.

But as signs like “Washington Strong” suggest, the residents will get through it — together.