Thursday, December 23, 2010

36,525 Days Later

Chicago firefighters carry an injured comrade from the scene of a blaze Wednesday at an abandoned commercial building on the South Side. Two firefighters were killed and 17 hurt when a roof collapsed - exactly 100 years after the Chicago Union Stock Yard fire.

Yesterday was one of those rare occasions when history repeats itself at exactly the same time of year as it did the first time. The scene was a fire in a long-abandoned Chicago laundry business. As the fire raged, across town firefighters elsewhere were commemorating the 100th anniversary of a similar fire at the Chicago Union Stock Yards. Like the fire in 1910, yesterday's conflagration resulted in the deaths of Chicago firemen. The irony of the two events - 100 years apart - was lost on no one.

Yesterday, the Chicago Fire Department lost firefighters Edward Stringer and Corey Ankum. The fire in 1910 was even deadlier: 21 Chicago firefighters died during that blaze [in addition to 3 civilians]. Indeed, the 1910 fire was the largest single-event death toll of firefighters in America until September 11, 2001.

As it was on the morning of December 22, 1910, the brutally cold temperatures of December 22, 2010 made firefighting even more of a challenge. In addition to the brutal cold suffered by the firefighters themselves, there was the matter of preventing freezing in the lines leading to and from the fire trucks as both blazes were battled. Of course, the technology in 1910 was more primitive and made firefighting -in any climate - more difficult.

Yesterday's fire was in a long-abandoned South Shore laundry business where no one worked or lived. While - in contrast - the Chicago Union Stock Yards in 1910 were a central hub to the commerce of the entire Midwest, that fire occurred early enough n the morning that only a handful of employees were on site at the time of the blaze.

Indeed, the parallels between the two situations in terms of low potential for loss of human life illustrates a point as true in 2010 as it was in 1910: be it one life or hundreds, a firefighter will not leave a situation if he or she believes there is the potential to save even one human life.

Such was the case yesterday with firefighters Stringer and Ankum. Concerned that homeless people may have been taking refuge from the cold in the abandoned building, Stringer and Ankum were among the firefighters searching the burning building around daybreak when a roof came crashing down on them. Both men died of blunt force injuries, while 17 others were hurt. Firefighter Steven Ellerson was part of a group of firefighters on the roof when it collapsed. As Ellerson lay injured in the rubble, he heard Ankum, a former Chicago police officer who had joined the Fire Department just 18 months ago, calling for help. Minutes later, a rare "Mayday" call went out signalling that firefighters were buried under the debris. "Mayday. Mayday. Emergency. … Collapse in the rear of the building. Building came down. We've got guys trapped," a chief officer on the scene radioed to the fire dispatch office.

Ellerson found a gasping Ankum trapped in the debris and struggling to breathe. Ellerson whipped off his mask and placed it near Ankum's mouth in an effort to get oxygen to him. He wanted to give him his coat to keep warm, but the veteran firefighter was pulled from the building before he had the chance.

Dozens of firefighters who rushed to the scene tunneled through the debris to excavate four comrades — including Stringer and Ankum — trapped underneath the charred rubble. They also searched for squatters who might have been in the abandoned building.

As it turned out, there were none.

An ambulance rushed Stringer, 47, to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The 12-year department veteran was pronounced dead a short time later. Ankum, 34, was taken to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, where he died. He had joined the department in 2009, fulfilling a desire to become a Chicago firefighter like one of his closest family members.

By late morning, dozens of firefighters and members of Ankum's family were gathered in the swirling snow outside the Oak Lawn hospital to share their grief. The mourners stood at attention, saluting with their hats in their hands, as Ankum's body was shuttled by police escort to the Cook County medical examiner's office. That solemn tribute was repeated when Stringer's body was carried out of Northwestern Memorial.

It's not definitive as to why the abandoned laundry's heavy roof caved, as the fire never did reach that area of the building. More than likely, it was not fire but instead the accumulating snow and ice coupled with the building's age that led to the roof collapse.

The fire at the Union Stock Yards was fought in a similar weather conditions. By 4 am on December 22, 1910, the temperature in Chicago was 24 degrees. At that time, in an unlit basement of Warehouse 7 of the Nelson Morris Company at the Yards, wires suddenly began sparkling. Those first flames were soon fed by combustibles ranging from rags to raw meat.

Within little more than an hour, that fire would grow to engulf all of Warehouse 7. Then, in a few horrendous seconds, it would turn the nearly windowless brick building from just another meat-packing operation into the graveyard of 24 men, 21 of them Chicago firemen.

James Horan arrived on the scene 18 minutes after the alarm bell rang at his firehouse, jolting he and his wife. Horan was the 51-year old Chief of the Chicago Fire Department. "What's the matter, Jimmie?" said his second wife, Margaret, as he jumped into his firefighting gear. "Nothing, dear, there's another fire," he answered as he left the house.

He would never return.

At 5:08 am, almost exactly one hour after the first alarm had been sounded, a six-story brick wall, buckled by the expanding superheated air in the building, crashed through a wooden canopy onto a loading dock, killing Horan, 20 of his colleagues, and 3 employees. The tons of flaming debris buried them alive. Hours later, after firemen removed the debris brick by brick, Horan's body was found. He was on his knees, arms folded, facing the center of the fire.

By the time the blaze was extinguished 25 1/2 hours later at 6:37 am on December 23rd, 50 engine companies and 7 hook and ladder companies had been called to the scene. Fire hydrants near the location had been shut off prior to the outbreak of the fire to prevent freezing. Following Horan's death, First Assistant Chief Charles Seyferlich took command of the operations, diverting men from fighting the fire to search and retrieve the dead firefighters and three civilians who had also been on the loading dock.

Unlike the tributes that poured in yesterday for the two fallen firefighters, the reaction to Horan's death was quite the opposite. "It would take a dumb Irishman to get 20 guys killed," one firefighter told the Chicago Tribune the next day. Indeed, instead of being honored, Horan was held responsible for the deaths.

Eventually, Horan's reputation was to be saved. John Rice had heard the "It would take a dumb Irishman..." comments while growing up - particularly from his father, who was Horan's grandson, descended from Horan's first wife.

As an adult, Rice began researching his great-grandfather. "I decided to find out if he was a dumb guy," said Rice, a private investigator. Rice stumbled upon a cache of Horan's papers at the Chicago History Museum. Instead of a dolt, "I discovered he was an incredible hero, a visionary."

In fact, in his four years as chief, Horan had campaigned before the city council for a high-pressure water system to cover the Loop and the stock yards, the two areas of a growing city where the most fires occurred. Indeed, in a somber irony, "Twelve hours before he died, he was arguing for high-pressure water," Rice said. "He said after one fire killed a family, 'We have a 22,000-square-mile lake outside our front door, but we don't have enough water to save a mother and child.' "

Although such a system would eventually arrive, it is questionable whether it would have saved Horan and his men from near-instant death, given the close quarters in which they had to maneuver. The loading dock was the only place from where the fire could be attacked, and access was restricted by a rail line filled with box cars. Even if they had time to turn and run when Horan shouted, "Look out, men!" they wouldn't have gotten far. Those who survived were either blown sideways by the force of the collapse, which destroyed the box cars, or had enough distance to dash away.

It would be 88 years before Horan's heroism would be recognized. It started in 1998 when Bill Cattorini returned from fighting a fire at the same location as the 1910 blaze. "I thought, 'There should be a plaque,' " Cattorini recalled. "There's nothing. I just couldn't believe it. This was a disaster people didn't want to remember."

Cattornii and fellow firefighter Bill Cosgrove began to raise funds, scout out a location and find an artist who would carry out their vision of a proper memorial for not only those lost in the 1910 disaster, but all Chicago firefighters killed in the line of duty, a number that totals more than 500. They raised $170,000, with 70%coming from Chicago firefighters themselves.

On December 22, 2004, 94 years after the Union Stock Yard disaster and 6 years before yesterday's deaths, the monument was dedicated directly west of the iconic Stock Yards arch. Incidentally, the temperature on the day of the dedication was a balmy 4 degrees below zero.

The tragedy of the 1910 fire was compounded by questionable financial fallout in the years after the blaze. Nearly 20 years earlier, a Chicago businessman named Harlow Higinbothom had been in charge of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. Due to circumstances never fully explained, a number of Fair workers got locked in a cold storage facility near the Fair and died. Higinbothom immediately set up a fund to benefit the survivors of the victims. Seventeen years later, however, thousands of dollars raised in the 1890s still hadn't been awarded to family members by 1910.

After the 1910 fire, Higinbothom offered to take control of the $211,000 raised to benefit the widows and children of the dead firemen. Soon, firefighters learned of his plan to give the widows and children only proceeds from the donations, which Higinbothom said would be invested. The firemen went to court where a judge ruled against his plan to control the new fund, and all the money was distributed.

There will no doubt be a similar fund created for the families of yesterday's victims. A century apart - to the day - Chicago firefighters would die in a tragic blaze. Unlike the aftermath of the 1910 blaze and the blame that fell on Horan, both Stringer and Ankum will be honored as heroes.

Horan eventually got his honor, too -- a few years short of a century after his death, and - as it turns out -a few years before another tragedy.

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