1977 : Wenonah Hotel Fire, Bay City

December 10, 2020 all-day

Forty years ago Dec. 10 this photo taken by an amateur was submitted to The Times and was part of the newspaper’s report of the devastating blaze that made national news.

The worst fire in Bay City history, the Wenonah Hotel fire 40 years ago, brought out great heroism as well as regional cooperation to meet a community disaster.

While 10 people died and dozens were injured, the toll might have been even greater had not a host of heroes come forward and risked their own lives to save others from the relentless flames and cold.

Firefighting and rescue efforts were complicated by temperatures that had plunged below zero during the night. The temperature was reportedly nine degrees during the morning hours at the height of the blaze.

A few observations in a retrospective review of the historic event:

Midland, Saginaw, Essexville, Hampton, Bangor and other local township fire departments provided cooperation when Bay City was in dire need; Michigan Bell Telephone, Consumers Power, Durussel Tree Service and Bay Lawn Service also provided aerial trucks.

The official records show that firefighters, police, sheriff’s deputies and volunteers rescued many people who otherwise might have been victims of the blaze.

City police, U.S. Marine recruiters, whose office was in the Wenonah, and several volunteers also helped to rescue residents from the fire; a Frankenlust Township firefighter, a retired Detroit firefighter and Dick Somalski of Bay Lawn Service also assisted.

The fact that the fire occurred after 7 a.m. may have resulted in fewer casualties than if it had occurred earlier, in the middle of the night while all residents were sleeping, according to fire department reports; one fire official estimated the toll may have risen as high as 50 had the blaze been during the night; the 100 room building was home to 140 persons.

Suspicion of arson, raised by residents who reported smelling gasoline on the fourth floor, has never officially been ruled out by local fire officials.

A suspect considered mentally unbalanced was released by police because he could furnish no credible testimony, according to sources from the company that owned the building.

The state police fire marshal said an investigation found no evidence of arson and ruled a short circuit “appeared” to be the cause of the blaze.

Assistant Chief Lionel Ayotte noted the fire may have started in the sixth window on the third floor that would indicate a separate fire “apparently set,” and asked for an investigation of arson; no resolution of that request has been reported; and city inspections in February 1976, after renovations were made, showed the building complied with the building code.

Tim Younkman of The Bay City Times who has written his recollections of covering the fire and spoken of his experience eloquently at the Rotary Club of Bay City was one of the key reporters on the scene that day, Dec. 10, 1977.

Other reporters who deserve credit for The Times prize-winning Associated Press breaking news effort included Karl Albrecht, Nancy Clay, the late Howard Cogan, Tyrus Knoy and David Phillips. Photographers who snapped prize-winning shots of the fire were Leonard Falce, Wes Stafford, and Dick VanNostrand. Only Mr. Phillips still remains on the Times staff while Ms. Clay is the promotion director of the Ann Arbor News.

The 69-year-old community landmark of 153,000 square feet was the center of civic and social life. The late Richard T. Boyce was manager for Wenonah, Inc., headed by John A. Rapanos of Midland.

Patrolman Terry Jablonski was one of the police officers who was involved in a rescue of a Wenonah resident. Officer Jablonski helped a pregnant woman from the second floor with a rope and stretcher and assisted in saving a baby from the roof of the burning building.

Source : Dave Rogers, “40 Years Later: Wenonah Hotel Fire Stands Out as Bay City’s Top Tragedy“, MyBacCity.com, December 3, 2017. (Reposted)