Fire captain dies after battling South Side blaze
BY TINA SFONDELES, MAUDLYNE IHEJIRIKA, BECKY SCHLIKERMAN, LAUREN FITZPATRICK AND DONNA VICKROY Staff Reporters November 2, 2012 5:57PM
A memorial for Chicago Fire Department Capt. Herbert Johnson outside the scene of the fire at 2315 W. 50th Place in Chicago, Ill., on Saturday, November 3, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 4, 2012 6:15AM
Chicago police and firefighters were descending on the Morgan Park home of Fire Dept. Capt. Herbie Johnson, 54, Saturday to comfort the family of a man who was described as a larger-than-life personality.
Johnson, a father of three, perished from injuries suffered Friday evening while battling a house fire at 2315 W. 50th Place, becoming the first Chicago firefighter to die in the line of duty since 2010.
On Saturday, Johnson’s police officer brother, Jimmy Johnson, was guarding the front door of his brother’s home. The door was open, but family members were not ready to speak with the media.
Johnson’s wife, Sue, was inside receiving vistors, many of whom arrived in police and firefighter uniforms. A fire chaplain was at the house, as well as her eldest son, a Marine living in California who flew home first thing Saturday morning. Chicago Police squad cars were parked at either end of the block. People filled the sidewalks, exchanging stories about their fallen friend. Others wrapped purple bunting around the trees on the block.
The scene at the emergency room the night before was of anguish, as colleagues learned that Johnson—a central figure both in his Morgan Park neighborhood and on the job—was dead.
When the news came down Friday night, those in the University of Chicago Hospitals’ ER burst into tears and hugs.
“I mean, it was awful,” said Candice Robinson, 40, of the south suburbs, who was inside the ER with her sick mother at the time. “A zillion grown men, firefighters, all crying.”
Fire officials said a possible “flash over” killed Johnson as he was battling the fire inside the 2-story home. He suffered second and third degree burns. A “mayday” call went out as fellow firefighters searched for him. What ignited the fire while a family inside prepared for a Tupperware party was still being probed.
“We lost a piece of our heart and soul today,” said Tom Ryan, head of Firefighters Local No. 2. “Herbie is what the Chicago Fire Department is about.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who rushed to the hospital after getting the news, said all the firefighters he spoke to were shocked to lose Johnson, a 33-year veteran who had been promoted to captain just this summer during a ceremony at Navy Pier. Smiling broadly, he posed that day for a photo with Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago.
“I think you can hear in every one of their voices: ‘This doesn’t happen to Herbie,’ ” the mayor said Friday night, standing next to Santiago outside the ER. “He touched everybody that ran into contact with him. He was a larger than life person.”
Johnson was a decorated firefighter, as well, winning the state’s Medal of Honor in 2007 for bravery. It’s the highest honor given by the state to a firefighter.
Johnson was also a dedicated volunteer. Among his good deeds: giving his time to support a burn camp and rounding up firefighters to got to New York City after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
He is the first Chicago firefighter to die in the line of duty since Edward Stringer and Cory Ankum died when the roof of an abandoned laundromat collapsed on them in December, 2010.
A second firefighter, Brian Woods, suffered smoke inhalation in Friday’s fire and was taken to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. Fire Dept. spokesman Larry Langford later said he was “doing good.”
The fire broke out just before 5:30 p.m. It was soon raised to a 2-11 alarm as firefighters battled flames torching the wood home’s attic.
Families inside the home got out safely, fighting through thick smoke after a Good Samaritan warned them that flames were shooting out of the house.
On the home’s second floor, Rosa Ortiz and her family were preparing a large shrimp cocktail for a Tupperware party. Eight children — one as young as 2 — were with them.
Ortiz’s sister, Silvia Soria, 30, said they began to smell smoke after putting out sandwiches for 10 expected guests.
Then they heard the Good Samaritan, who apparently had been pumping gas at a nearby gas station, making noise in the building after seeing the house burning.
“When we heard him slamming the doors ... we came out,” Soria said in Spanish.
As the group rushed out of the home, they didn’t realize Ortiz’s youngest daughter, Sol, was still inside the house in the bathroom.
“She was missing,” Ortiz said, tears rolling down her cheeks. “We counted the kids ... and she saw they weren’t all there,” Soria said.
Ortiz and her oldest son, Jesus, ran inside the house to get the little girl. “The smoke was on top of us,” Ortiz, 29, said in Spanish.
But the little girl made it out safely after being rescued by her older brother, Soria said. “If I hadn’t gotten her out...” Ortiz said of her daughter, trailing off.
Ortiz described the fire as sounding thunderous.
Soria said she saw Captain Johnson on top of the house on the roof at one point. “He was the first one to go in,” Soria said.
Upon hearing news that the captain had died, the families of the charred building were shocked.
“We feel very bad,” Soria said. “He tried to save our lives,” said Ortiz.
“We didn’t think this would happen,” Soria said in Spanish. “Oh, God.”
Longino Soto, 43, who lives on the home’s first floor, said in Spanish: “I feel bad.”
“It could have been any one of us,” he said.
When Johnson was pulled from the blaze, witnesses watched as his fellow firefighters fought to save him, performing chest compressions before loading him into an ambulance. He was brought down to the home’s porch, still wearing his air mask.
“They pulled him out,” Maria Retiguin, 41, who lives across the street from the fire. “He was the first one in. He looked very bad. I was scared.”
Cecilia Estaban, 29, who also lived across the street, teared up when she described what she saw.
“I saw when the firefighters went in,” Estaban said. “More smoke came out and they came out. They pulled him out. He looked burned or damaged by smoke.”
At the U of C emergency room, Candice Robinson described a tragic scene, including a sea of weeping firefighters inside as doctors tried to save him. There was a strong smell of smoke as Johnson’s boots and clothes were brought out of the room where he was being treated.
“They tried to revive him, but we knew it was over when all the firefighters talking to doctors, a bunch of them starting crying,” Robinson said.
Robinson said she watched as a man came into the ER, turned to a woman and said: “Sis, he’s gone.”
The two both began crying and fell into each other’s arms.
Contributing: Frank Main, Bob Rakow