August 7, 2014 at 1:00 am

Fun, funds and firefighters

With no money to burn, Detroit firehouse gets a helping hand from kickball

Sgt. Jaime Aguilar, 52, grew up in the neighborhood and has spent 26 years in the fire department. (Neal Rubin / The Detroit News)

It was simple in the old days. If you broke your ax, the fire department gave you a new one.

These are the new days, when the city can’t even supply its firehouses with fire trucks.

The stalwarts at Engine 33/Ladder 13 say thank you, by the way; after word leaked 20 months ago that Detroit firefighters didn’t even have toilet paper, so much was donated that they only exhausted their supply two weeks ago.

At Engine 33, a classic red brick fire station in a classic southwest Detroit neighborhood, the crew is still busting its collective ax.

“For the size of our department,” says Capt. Tom Wickman, “and the amount of fire runs we get to, we’re busier than anywhere in the world.”

He’s proud, but he’s not bragging.

“It’s sad,” he says.

Also sad: the firefighters’ shopping list.

In a building that dates to 1911, they’re sleeping in beds older than they are and on sheets and pillows they supply themselves.

It used to be that the city provided mops, detergents and the wax to clean the brass pole. Now the brass poles are all gone and the cleaning supplies are the crew’s responsibility.

Likewise the dish towels, the trash bags, the air conditioning units and the closet-like contraption with the industrial-strength blower that they created to dry their pants and jackets. Much of that preceded the city’s bankruptcy, but since the filing, they don’t even get paper towels.

“They know they can just give us a bucket and the fires go out,” says Sgt. Jaime Aguilar, 52, a 26-year veteran. As long as the blazes get extinguished somehow, why should the city make things better?

But help is on the horizon … from some kickball players.

$25,000 is the goal

Adam Blanck and Benjy Gordon are old friends, or as old as a pair of 27-year-olds can be.

They founded a group called Pitch for Detroit in 2010 to get people in their general age group “to get involved with something bigger than themselves,” says Blanck, a lawyer who hails from West Bloomfield but lives downtown.

The first four years, they threw softball tournaments on behalf of various good causes. Sunday from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. on Belle Isle, it’s kickball, a game no one ever failed at in front of a large crowd.

While the tournament is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s CommunityNEXT, players of any or no faith are welcome. To sign up, go to; if you’re coordinated enough to click on the big “Play” or “Give” buttons, you’ll do fine.

Through corporate donors and players hustling pledges from their friends, the hope is to raise $25,000 for Engine 33. Figure on music, hot dogs, kid activities, and a chance to put some community support behind a station that’s a part of its neighborhood, both geographically and figuratively.

No working ladder truck

People new to Lawndale Street bring dinner to the crew to say hello, Aguilar says. For the 100th anniversary of the station, everyone came over for a cookout.

Not long ago, the firefighters helped extricate a little boy’s hand from a sippy cup. Also not long ago, a guy came staggering in with five stab wounds, but that’s life in the big city.

Pitch for Detroit found Engine 33/Ladder 13 through a firefighter who does video and marketing work on the side. What it didn’t find was an actual ladder truck; it’s been broken for about two years.

Likewise, the pumper in the firehouse has a broken hydrant hookup on one side. But that’s better than the loaner that once came from headquarters with a hammer, and instructions to bang the starter with it if the engine didn’t turn over.

The money from the kickball event won’t go toward the rigs. The firefighters’ wish list includes things like better boots and flashlights, an ice machine, and a dining room table to replace the former conference table salvaged from the old GM Fleetwood plant.

“I was born and raised in this community. My heart is here,” Aguilar says.

It would be nice if he maybe had some Soft Scrub and Windex there, too.
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