The Two-Week Fire

The following summer, I moved from the switchboard up to the city room as a reporter, filling in for regular beat reporters when they went on vacation.

After a week of orientation, my first assignment was taking over as fire reporter while Bob White took two weeks off. Bob worked on the Saturday (newspaper reporting was a six-day-a-week job back in those days) and I officially took over the beat on Sunday.

Of course, I figured I was starting on Monday because nothing newsworthy ever happens on Sunday. Until it does.

About 3 am Sunday, the phone rang at our house. It was Emory Kroening, a Press-Gazette photographer, to alert me that a big fire had broken out in a paper warehouse. He was on his way to take photos and he offered to pick me up on the way.

The warehouse was a cement block building, 1,000 feet long and 136 feet wide, filled with about a million dollars' worth of paper in rolls and bales. Flames were shooting high into the sky from the entire length of the building. Five or six firetrucks were on the scene and I figured I could see at least forty firemen. I eventually learned that there were more firemen on the other side of the building and that another firetruck was across the street, helping nearby residents extinguish pieces of flaming material that were landing on their homes.

Green Bay's fire chief, Dave Zuidmulder, was in charge and I managed to talk to him when he wasn't busy yelling orders to his men. I knew him because he was a friend of Dad's.

I didn't want to get the details from him because I knew I could do that at the Fire Department headquarters Sunday or Monday morning (the Press-Gazette didn't have a Sunday edition at that time).

I got more than a quote. He told me that he was pretty sure the warehouse violated the city's building code because it didn't have any internal firewalls. He asked me not to quote him about it but suggested that I should check the building plans at City Hall.

We were there for another three or four hours, when the chief announced that the fire was over. I had got a few quotes from firefighters on their breaks. Emory Kroening dropped me off at home and I slept for a couple of hours.

I probably should have slept longer but I knew I had a reporter's dream story. It would be Monday's lead story, at the top of Page One, and I wasn't under any deadline pressure. I had all day Sunday and, for that matter, all Monday morning to write it.

I walked down to the central fire station, twelve blocks or so, and got all the details about when and how the alarm had come in and what trucks had been dispatched at what times.

Back home, I immediately sat down at Dad's 1914 model Underwood typewriter, sorted out my notes, and wrote the story. Even though I had plenty of time, I wrote it quickly.

I showed it to Dad, who said it was pretty good, which I took as high praise. He didn't want to suggest any changes, because that was the prerogative of City Editor Dave Yuenger.

Suddenly I was bored. I wanted it to be Monday. I wanted to hand my story to Dave Yuenger; I wanted to be in the pressroom, watching the Monday paper fly off the press with my story atop Page One.

Then the phone rang. It was Emory Kroening. The fire had flared up again.

It was very dull compared to what we'd seen earlier. Only a very small section was burning, maybe ten or twelve feet, and the flames were barely visible in daylight. The fire was out again in less than half an hour.

I wrote a few paragraphs to run as a sidebar to my main story.

On Monday morning, I had to write cut lines (newspaperese for captions) for about a dozen of Emory's photos and I also had to get write a wrap-up story about some smaller fires that had occurred over the weekend.

That afternoon, the warehouse fire flared up again. It flared up once more on Tuesday. And on Wednesday. And every day that week and the following week.

Finally, on Sunday, two weeks after the fire had started, bulldozers came in to knock down the building and bury the ashes.

The fire had ended. So had my stint as the fire reporter.

But there was an interesting aftermath.