Fire at Lincoln Park pastor’s home sparks rift
Lincoln Park — Pastor Terry Banks has spent years hearing others’ prayers for help. Now, he seeks a miracle to recover.
In February, flames unexpectedly erupted and ravaged his longtime home, leaving it a smoldering, uninhabitable ruin.
The cause was unclear, and city officials say crews worked as quickly as possible to battle the blaze. But Banks and others wonder if firefighters deliberately dallied and were uninterested in saving an African-American man’s residence.
“I believe if I was a Caucasian pastor standing up there, they would have put that fire out immediately,” Banks said.
City officials dispute the assertion. The Fire Department “has a proud history of community service for almost 100 years, and is committed to provide consistent, timely and dedicated responses to all of its residents, without judgment or discrimination,” Chief Steve Martin said in a statement.
The situation has pushed the preacher to seek help from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Western Wayne chapter as well as work with an activist to spread the word about the incident.
“This is racism and discrimination at its best,” said the Rev. W.J. Rideout III, who leads a Detroit church, works with Defenders of Truth & Justice and supports Banks. “We want justice for that entire family. This is not a person who is committing a crime. He’s a well-respected person in the community and for them to allow this to happen — it’s an injustice.”
Meanwhile, Lincoln Park leaders defend their efforts.
“The city determined that everything was done properly and the Fire Department responded properly, which was put the fire out,” Edward Zelenak, the attorney for the Wayne County community, told The Detroit News.
Banks never imagined he’d encounter disaster when returning on Feb. 21 to spot dark smoke near a bedroom at his single-story house on about 5 acres.
City transcripts show the alarm company for the property alerted 911 at about 3:14 p.m. Crews arrived within minutes and called in Ecorse for mutual aid, according to the records. Wyandotte personnel came later.
Banks, who had tried to douse the flames on his own until overcome, recalls firefighters reporting difficulties with a nearby hydrant then having to use another.
To him, it seemed the crews weren’t working fast enough and some firefighters stood around while the blaze seared over nearly two hours. And at one point, the pastor alleges hearing one man whom he couldn’t identify use a racial epithet.
Banks was stunned. “And I believed it because they weren’t doing” anything, he said.
In a letter circulated among city officials this week, Zelenak wrote he “concluded that no evidence has been found that supports the recent allegation that a racial slur was uttered by any firefighter.”
Addressing the issue in a recent statement,Martin said the closest hydrant isn’t maintained by the city or compatible with a department connection, so crews quickly secured a second one 70-90 feet farther west “not visible to the residence, which may have contributed to the incorrect perception that it took ‘an hour’ to get water.” A city report showed the last unit was cleared from the scene nearly five hours after the blaze began.
Martin said crews also applied an estimated 500 gallons of water within the first 16 minutes and remained inside the burning structure even after the roof partly collapsed.
In a notice to city officials, a Wyandotte fire lieutenant called the blaze “one of the more difficult, single story, residential fires to fight, extinguish and overhaul, in over 30 years of … service,” citing the home’s layout and roof collapse.
David Parker, a longtime friend of Banks who spent more than 20 years as a firefighter in Detroit, viewed the actions differently when he rushed to the scene. “That was not the normal rhythm I was used to seeing when a house was burning,” he said. “To me, they were moving very slow.”
In his statement, Martin acknowledged that during emergencies “seconds can feel like minutes and minutes can feel hours. In this case, however, the audio evidence refutes the statements that there was any delay in suppression.”
But Banks, who lost most valuables and estimates the fire sparked at least $200,000 in damage, remains dissatisfied and reached out to Rideout after claiming city officials hadn’t properly responded.
Martin said the pastor did not express any concerns at the scene and his department received no formal complaints in the weeks after the fire. An NAACP official contacted city officials last month to learn more about the situation at Banks’ request, Zelenak said.
Meanwhile, Banks faces insurance issues and wonders about rebuilding. “If it wasn’t for my children, I would be naked and homeless,” he said.
It’s a sea change for a preacher known to help youths, support community efforts, join other church leaders and “helps in every aspect that he can,” said Eddie Jones, who leads Fountain Worship Center in Detroit.
Colleagues recently began working to help his family and are willing to join protests, he added. “We want to make sure he’s treated fairly.”