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Wenonah Hotel Fire

Dec. 10, 1977

Bay City's once proud center of activity, the venerable Wenonah Hotel, mysteriously burned nearly 30 years ago , and now the former owner reports that an arson suspect was freed by police.

The official cause of the blaze was thought by fire officials to be an electrical problem and the fire was believed to be accelerated by paneling that covered the walls of the old hotel.

Now, many decades later, comes Midland entrepreneur John A. Rapanos, who owned the hotel/apartment building, to unveil new information about the official response to the blaze.

Mr. Rapanos, a prominent developer and philanthropist, was responding to an official report by the Bay City Fire Department.
This report was published in a local history book, "Ghosts, Crimes and Urban Legends of Bay City, Michigan" by Historical Press L.L.C., of Bay City.

Rapanos said he received reports after the fire: "Somebody, believed to be a young man, ran across the street from the Wenonah, entered the Red Lion Restaurant, and claimed he burned down the building to build a Jewish temple."

Later, apparently the same young man went to the Social Services office on Adams Street and made the same claim, stating outrageous reasons for his actions, according to Mr. Rapanos. Police reportedly found the young man and arrested him.

"During questioning he was asked his name," said Rapanos, "and he answered 'Jesus Christ.'" When police queried: "Did you burn down the Wenonah?" the young man reportedly said: 'No, Jesus Christ wouldn't set a fire.'" He evaded all other questioning.

"The kid wasn't Jewish, didn't have a Jewish name, so the incident was very strange," said Mr. Rapanos. "Obviously, he was insane, but whether he did it or not we'll never know."

Supposedly on advice from an attorney, police let the young man go, according to Mr. Rapanos. The attorney reportedly said even if charges were brought the young man would be found insane and would end up in an asylum.

"They wouldn't charge him because he was insane and I don't know what happened to him," said Mr. Rapanos.

He said the young man was about 20 years old and may have been a tenant who had been evicted "for being nutso."

Reports vary about the death toll, some placing it at eight and others as high as 11. Rapanos recalls it was eight.

Mr. Rapanos said before the fire that he had had all shrubbery cleared around fire hose access pipes around the hotel but asserted that "they didn't even hook up to those hoses that would have put the fire out just like that."

He also said the toll may have been reduced had the Bay City Fire Department accepted an offer from The Dow Chemical Company to send its tower truck that reached higher than fire department ladder trucks and bucket trucks.

"The Dow ladder truck was more than halfway to Bay City when they were told the truck was not needed," he said. Photos of the fire show the Midland Fire Department ladder truck and other high-reaching bucket trucks from a tree service and Michigan Bell Telephone Co. fighting the fire on the top floor of the four story building.

"The chief was asked why the Dow truck was sent back and he said he didn't need it," said Mr. Rapanos.

Some hotel residents died when they jumped from the upper stories and Mr. Rapanos believes they might have been saved had the Dow high-reaching tower truck been at the scene. "People could have gotten to the fourth floor and been taken off the roof," he speculated, noting that the Dow tower truck was capable of reaching 7-8 stories high.

An article in Firehouse Magazine soon after the fire reported that the fire had been fought using equipment from Bay City, Saginaw, Flint, Midland, Michigan Bell Telephone, and tree services.

Whether the loss of life could have been reduced with more equipment or whether more equipment would have been superfluous remains speculation at this late date, according to some observers

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