www.mybaycity.com November 18, 2007
Rotary Article 2059

Reporter Tim Younkman Recalls Wenonah Hotel Fire 30 Years Ago Dec. 10

November 18, 2007
By: Dave Rogers

Andy Rogers grabbed his camera, stopped at the photo store for a supply of Tri-X film and started shooting.

Last Weeks program - Nov 6, 2007:
Younkman Talks About Wenonah Hotel Fire
The 300-room Wenonah Hotel was the pride and center of Bay City business and social life.

The stately Wenonah was built in 1908 on the site of the city's first premier hotel, the Fraser House, built in 1865, that had burned in 1906.

The Wenonah was termed "fireproof" by its investors, a group of prominent Bay City businessmen, because it was constructed with marble, steel, glass and cement.

After more than six decades of use, in 1970 it was extensively remodeled and converted to 100 apartments.

It was still a center of civic life and was meeting place of the Rotary Club of Bay City, among other groups.

Reporter Tim Younkman of The Bay City Times was not scheduled to work that cold, forbidding Saturday, December 10, 1977.

But he sprang into action when alerted by a phone call from veteran newsman Howard "Sonny" Cogan, working the city desk at the Times that morning. Only one reporter was on duty.

Mr. Younkman reconstructed a time-line of the blaze that destroyed the Wenonah that day:

  • 7 a.m.: Residents notice lights flashing in the hotel;

  • 7:15 a.m.: Corridors are filling with smoke;

  • 7:30 a.m.: Flames are seen in the building at the northeast corner at Center Avenue and Saginaw Street.

    Soon, people on the fourth floor realize they are trapped by the flames from the fire that apparently started in the ceiling on the third floor and were racing up through the walls.

    As Mr. Younkman drove into the city, at Euclid Avenue and Thomas Street he already could see smoke.

    "Saginaw Street was not blocked and I could come all the way to the hotel," he recalled. "I went into an auto parts store and called the office."

    By now it's well after 8 a.m. and fire is coming out the roof, Mr. Younkman said. "Help from Midland and Saginaw and volunteer firefighters from the surrounding townships began to arrive."

    "People on the fourth floor had nowhere to go and were jumping from the roof," he exclaimed. "Three of the jumpers died and several survived, including a Pakistani man who hit a parking meter but lived."

    "The community was shocked by this type of disaster," Mr. Younkman recalled.

    The fire burned for three hours and consumed the top two floors of the old hotel. At 10 a.m. the roof caved in, making recovery of bodies difficult. Fighting the blaze was compounded by zero temperatures that turned the water from fire-hoses instantly to ice.

    Fire hoses stretched from corner stanchions leaked and rivers of water came from four sides of the building, causing slippery, dangerous conditions.

    Clerks at Kahn's Jewelry store across Center Avenue from the hotel took pity on reporters with wet feet and allowed them to come inside and use the phone plus brought in coffee.

    Times photographers went aloft in airplanes and got prize-winning shots of the conflagration, he recalled.

    Fifty people were severely injured and all the emergency rooms in the city's four hospitals were full, he said. The death toll eventually was 10, he said. The story made national news.

    "This is where everyone came together; we all knew what to do," he commented on the reporting/photography team that won the Michigan Associated Press breaking news first place award that year for the Wenonah blaze story.

    The fire department had inspected the building earlier that year and it had passed, according to Mr. Younkman. Speculation about the cause of the blaze included suspicion of arson but also focused on electrical problems in 18 miles of wiring that originally had been installed in the hotel. "It was never clear in any body's mind what really caused the fire," he said.

    Rotarian Harry Farris recalled that the club's badge box and Rotary flags were rescued from the first floor of the building.

    For ten years community leaders speculated on what should be built on the site of the hotel, Mr. Younkman recalled. Eventually, the Delta College Planetarium and Learning Center was built there, retaining the use of the site as the city's center of civic life.

    The Times will publish a special edition near the thirtieth anniversary of the fire, said Mr. Younkman. The package of information will include a slide show of photographs from the historic event.###


    Over 38 guests attended last week's special programs designed to introduce Rotary to prospective members. It is now important to follow up with those people.

    The Club's international project to fund tree plantations in West Africa is well underway. A number of other clubs in the district have stepped up to join the effort and the result is about $11,000. By the time matching grants are added, we anticipate being over $20,000. Each plantation costs $600 and has 200 trees. The West Africa sponsoring group hopes to plant a million trees.

    The President's Challenge food drive made another delivery to the St. Maria Goretti food pantry. With Thanksgiving coming the need is great and Rotary's participation is greatly appreciated.

    Chuck and Nancy Cusick are in Nigeria on a Rotary International Polio vaccination trip.

    Upcoming Programs

    (See the official schedule at RotaryBayCity.org)

  • November 13 Tim Younkman, columnist and longtime reporter for The Bay City Times, to speak on the Wenonah Hotel fire in December, 1976.

  • November 20 Growth in Bay County - James C. Fabiano II

  • November 27 Michigan Business Tax - Gary Riedlinger C.P.A. Yeo & Yeo


  • Two special meetings are scheduled for 11:00 November 27
        International Night Wrap Up.
        Community Grants committee.

  • Register soon for the District Conference in Mt. Pleasant.

  • The International Conference will be June 15-18 in L.A.

  • Vocational Days are scheduled for March 4 and March 18. Please sign up to sponsor students by January 8. (This committee is looking for a co-chair. If interested see Ralph Knop or Griff Acker.)

  • The board has approved a Public Relations Officer position for the club, for which it will pay an honorarium.

    Visit RotaryBayCity.org, web site of the Rotary Club of Bay City, Michigan

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