Mary VanDerMaas


Mary VanDerMaas


Mary VanDerMaas was 12 years old and the daughter of a Detroit Fireman. He had a sense something was about to happen and stayed home from a family picnic to be near the phone. When the rest of the family heard what was happening in the city, they accidentally drove home in the middle of the crowds and burning buildings.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI






Written Story


Lower East Detroit


I had just turned 12. My Dad was a Detroit firefighter. He had worked Saturday, and he was supposed to have the day off on Sunday. My family had planned a picnic fun day for me that Sunday; Mom had spent the night frying chicken for our day and I was so excited. My Dad came home from regular duty to announce we couldn't go. They were expecting trouble and so he was on call. I was adamant that nothing would happen and begged "let's just go." He would not leave because he needed to be by the phone in case the call came, which I realize in retrospect, he was expecting. So it was decided he would stay home by the phone and my mom, yiayia, and papou (grandparents) would take me on our picnic at Camp Dearborn as planned. My dad made my mom promise she would call from a payphone at a designated time. We were having fun on the beach and papou was listening to the Tigers game on a portable radio. As we approached him in the picnic area, he told us (the) riots had broken out. I heard someone say Detroit is burning. Mom ran to call and before I knew it we were in the car heading home.

To avoid driving through the base of the rioting, my dad had instructed my mom to take a different, more complicated, route home. She couldn't remember his modified directions, and as a result, we drove right into it. I saw it, it was mid to late afternoon. It was very scary, tense. We came to a stop on the freeway, frenetic energy everywhere. Thick, billowing smoke above and all around, massive crowds running on freeway overpasses and ramps. It was a slow crawl and I got a real sense as child that this was seriously bad. I was terrified, and I remember my mom telling me not to make eye contact with anyone to keep my head forward. The smell of the dense smoke permeated the closed windows of the car. It seemed like time had stopped, as rapid sensations of movements, sights, sounds and smells raged. It was a sensory overload of something really gone wrong -- "this can't be real." I wanted out of there fast, and I knew I didn't want my dad to fight this fire. It was too big, and too out of control.

When we got home, I begged my dad to not go to work--to no avail. His response was quietly serious, "I have to go. It's my job, I fight fires." He left that Sunday afternoon and we didn't see him until the following Thursday. The news reports on TV and the radio fueled fear and anxiety... Firefighters were being shot, were pinned under rigs, among sniper fire, trapped in engine houses... The news never gave the names of any of these firefighters, so we had little way of telling if my Dad was okay or not. When he finally returned home, he had four hours before he needed to report back to duty. He was dirty and sweaty, very dirty -- and I remember wanting to see him and feeling so relieved he was home and okay, but understood he was in dire need of sleep. "Marika, if I've had 4 hours of sleep, I've had a lot," he said. He went to bed and slept for those four hours before returning to his home Engine House 52, the same house where he was headquartered during the rioting. After that, it started to calm down, but unfortunately never returned to "normal," or as it was before. As a kid on the lower East side of Detroit, I still loved it, but knew there was something undefinable in the air; that, sadly, everything had changed. My dad remained on the department until 1978, retiring as a lieutenant. In memory of Barney "Big Barn" Momcilovic.

Original Format


Submitter's Name

Mary VanDerMaas

Submission Date





“Mary VanDerMaas,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed February 24, 2024,

Output Formats