If tonight is like most other nights over the past 50 years, Bill Eisner will respond to at least one fire in Detroit, and he will take pictures.
He first will play cards or watch TV at a fire station, usually Squad 3, a century-old red brick building near the Packard Plant. When the alert sounds, Eisner, 75, will jump on the rig and race to the scene with the firefighters, and in the midst of the flashing lights, sirens, leaping flames, black smoke and sparking wires, Eisner will calmly grab his Nikon D 200 and get to work.
This is what he has done since 1962 – document the world of the Detroit Fire Department, the life inside the engine houses, the fires, the firefighters’ weddings, academy graduations, promotions, funerals, memorial services, field days and retirements. He has taken photos at 715 retirement parties over the years.
For 50 years Eisner, right, has opened a window on men and women whose work largely goes unnoticed. For half a century Eisner’s photos have appeared in local publications – mostly the Free Press – as well as such national outlets as Newsweek, Encyclopedia Britannica and Firehouse magazine, which has the largest circulation of fire-service trade publications.
“What Bill has done is phenomenal,” said Harvey Eisner, the editor-in-chief of Firehouse who is not related to Bill Eisner. “His knowledge of the city is phenomenal. His knowledge of the department is phenomenal.
Detroit’s problem with fires is well known today. There are numerous photographers with digital equipment who follow the department, and the DFD is the subject of an award-winning documentary, “BURN,” which opens in local theaters today.
But for many years, Eisner was often by himself. He was a hustler. He showed up at fires on frozen pre-dawn mornings in the 1960s and ‘70s and then raced to the Free Press, smelling of smoke, to develop his film and persuade editors that his photos had news value. They often agreed.
Eisner has saved all of his photos, and he has amassed an archive of more than 150,000 images, a remarkable visual history of both firefighters at work and the burning of a city that has burned more than any other major city in America.
“There are probably very few photographers worldwide who have dedicated themselves so single-mindedly to one topic for 50 years,” said Brian Kaufman, a Free Press videographer who has worked with Eisner.
“The fact that his archive is largely unknown is even more fascinating.”
Kathy Kieliszewski, the Free Press’ director of photo and video, sees Eisner’s work as going beyond fires and the people who put them out.
“His pictures reflect Detroit’s story in a distinct and important way,” she said. “The population loss, the changing neighborhoods, the disappearing architecture and the city’s evolving geography. Bill’s archive of fire photography is a stunning journalistic and historical record.”
Frank English, a retired Detroit firefighter, said: “Bill Eisner was the first person who really put Detroit firefighters on the national stage. He’s a great guy, and his family is the Detroit Fire Department. Detroit firefighters owe him a huge debt.”
Always ready to respond
Eisner is a widower with two grown children, and he lives modestly in Roseville. He is low-key but friendly and talkative, and he has a self-deprecating sense of humor that comes in handy amid the banter and teasing in Detroit engine houses. He surprises friends and Detroit journalists by mailing them candid photos of themselves, sometimes with humorous speech balloons drawn on the image.
During baseball season, Eisner works part-time for the Tigers, taking photos of the national anthem singers and the fans who throw out the honorary first pitches. But the fire department is his passion, bordering on obsession. He is not a department employee, and he is not paid for the vast majority of his photos, though he contracts for jobs such as weddings. Eisner gives away many of the photographs to the firefighters who are in them.
At 8, in 1945, Eisner chased his first fire when he followed smoke on his bike about two miles from his neighborhood near Linwood and Fenkell to a lumber yard at Wyoming and Lyndon. His aunt gave him his first camera, a Kodak, when he was a teenager, in 1950. He still has that camera and his original photos.
He became interested in firefighters when he served as a medic in the U.S. Army in Germany in the early 1960s, as he discovered he enjoyed the adrenaline rush of first responders. He bought his first 35-millimeter camera as a soldier, and when he returned to Detroit he started hanging around fire fighters. He developed a great affection for the department and found there was a market for photographs of burning buildings.
“I can’t tell you why I got into taking pictures,” Eisner said. “It’s sort of a bug. I just love doing it. I like the excitement. I love watching how the pictures turn out. I just like to make beautiful pictures."
When he isn’t riding a rig, Eisner responds to fires in his car, a 2001 Chrysler 300. His cars have always been turned out as mini-fire vehicles, equipped with a scanner to monitor the DFD radio, heavy-duty boots, an orange reflective safety vest and red dashboard flasher. “I haven’t used the flasher in a long time,” he insisted.
For years he wore a small, inconspicuous scanner on his belt, and when he talked to people, the sudden squawk of the disembodied voice of the DFD dispatcher startled them. He now carries a department radio, and Fire Commissioner Donald Austin calls Eisner "our indispensable resident photographer."
Eisner has an encyclopedic knowledge of Detroit streets and landmarks, and he can navigate his way to a fire as if a GPS were programmed in his brain. He doesn’t waste time, either. In the early 1970s, Jim Triano, a retired FBI agent who was then a Wayne State University police officer, recalled seeing a car speeding westward on W. Warren at 3 a.m. He pulled it over, and Eisner was inside.
“He blew a few lights and was doing 75,” Triano said. “But he was so friendly, and he said he was going to a fire. I let him go.”
Eisner does not remember Triano and denies he ever drove that fast.
In 1962, when Eisner began taking photos, most fires in Detroit were accidental and took place in occupied buildings.
That was just as the city’s fire toll had begun rising, though, and it grew year by year, until the number of fires peaked in 1984 with 23,765 – an average of 65 a day. Oct. 30 and 31 that year – Devil’s Night and Halloween – were a fire photographer’s fantasy: There were a total of 653 fires, and Eisner dashed across the city from incident to incident, stopping only to drop off his film at the Free Press.
Today, Devil’s Night is Angel’s Night, and the Halloween period is generally calm. Yet Detroit continues to burn, especially from arsons in abandoned structures. There have been an average of about 32 fires a day in the past few years in a city that has many fewer buildings, residents and firefighters than in 1962 and 1984.
Being first at the scene
“You never know what is going to happen,” Eisner said. “The most important thing is to get to the scene. If you’re not there to get the picture it doesn’t mean a darn thing. You’ve got to be there.”
In 1980, Eisner shot a photo of firefighters on a ladder rescuing a woman. A few months later, he took another photo of the same woman being rescued by firefighters on a ladder.
“The second time I asked her, ‘Do you like the service the fire department provides? She said, 'Yes. And I’m going to move'” to another apartment.
Because he travels through Detroit while monitoring the DFD radio, Eisner on occasion hears units being dispatched to a scene near his location, and he arrives at the scene before fire crews.
That happened one day around 1992 when he was driving near 8 Mile and Van Dyke. When he reached the home, a woman, badly burned, emerged from the smoke and said her children were still inside.
“I got another man who was there, and I said, ‘C’mon, let’s see if we can get in there.’ So we went around into the back,” he recalled. “We were crawling on the floor. We weren’t wearing any fire gear or nothing like that. The smoke was coming down pretty low to the floor. I heard the fire trucks, and I says, ‘Let’s get out of there, because if this thing flashes over, we’ll both get killed.”
He told the first arriving rig – he knew the firefighters – kids were trapped. They ran in. Then Eisner picked up his camera. His photos are stark and disturbing: Three children, unmarked by fire, lying lifeless on the lush grass, as firefighters tried to resuscitate them. They eventually died from smoke inhalation, as did their mother and father.
One day in 1993, Eisner was bored at his job at Lasky Furniture in Hamtramck, and heard a run on the radio to Mack and Chene. The alarm did not seem out of the ordinary, but he decided to go. Before long, firefighters and EMS personnel were carrying out comatose children from a home guarded by bars on the windows and doors. Eisner started shooting, and his photo, above right, of an anguished firefighter carrying a toddler ran across one third of the Free Press’ front page the next day. The paper nominated him for a Pulitzer Prize, but he did not win. Seven children died in that fire, including the youngster in the photo.
Standing outside fires, Eisner sometimes asks himself if he would like to “run into hell” like his firefighter friends. He does not want to do that.
“It bothers me to see a guy walk into a ball of fire,” he said. “They do a job that no one else would do. You’ve got to go in an take in that line and put out that fire. It’s not going to go out by itself. It takes a brave person to do that work.”
Death on the job
Eisner understands the danger. He has watched friends suffer injuries and worse. In 1987, three firefighters died in a mammoth warehouse blaze behind the fire academy near I-96 and W. Warren. He knew them all, but kept shooting despite his sadness. “You get emotional,” he said. “But I don’t let it bother me. It’s like being in the army, I guess."
In 1969, his friends threw him a stag party before his wedding. The next night, one of his buddies from the party, Tom Killion, died when he became trapped in a fire in a building at Horton and Woodward. Eisner was there.
“The chief asked me not to take a picture," Eisner said. "I don’t recall if I knew it was him when they brought him out.”
He also knew John Ashby, one of the two firefighters killed in the 1967 riot. Ashby was electrocuted.
“I was at Engine 21 when they brought his gloves back,” Eisner recalled. “They were all burned.”
At 75, Eisner is slowing down a bit. He has been to 135 fires this year, and he needs a little more rest than in the past.
The newspapers are smaller, and they don’t have as much room for fire photos. Younger people, like 32-year-old Dennis Walus, are following the department now and posting their photos on websites and blogs. When Walus is sitting in an engine house and Eisner walks in, the firefighters say, “Your grandfather is here.”
Said Walus: “Bill is a legend. I can only imagine what he’s seen.”
When Eisner thinks about his 150,000 photos, he’s not sure what he should do with them. But he is certain about shooting fires tonight and tomorrow night, and many more nights to come.
“I’m not done,” he said. “As long as I can keep doing this I’ll be doing it.”
A sampling of Eisner's photos can be seen at detroitphoto1.smugmug.com