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