‘We could not be prouder of you,’ brother of fallen firefighter says
BY TINA SFONDELES AND LAUREN FITZPATRICK Staff Reporters November 8, 2012 10:41AM
Updated: December 10, 2012 6:20AM
Capt. Herbie Johnson’s brother said it all.
“Herbie, we could not be prouder of you dying for what you love, doing what you loved and doing it for the city of Chicago,” Chicago Police officer John Johnson said.
At Johnson’s funeral Thursday on the Southwest Side, those who knew the Chicago Fire Dept. captain best shared humorous and poignant memories of the man with a booming laugh and “backbone beyond belief.”
“To go into a burning building and not think of yourself, that was Herbie Johnson,” said Rev. Thomas McCarthy. “When you were ever in Herbie’s presence, he forced us to love and to love life, and to do it to the 10th degree.”
Johnson, 54, died last week while fighting a fire in the 2300 block of West 50th Place.
His wife, children and extended family shared the front row at the packed St. Rita of Cascia Shrine Chapel.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel offered support to Johnson’s family.
“I want you to know, your city is there with you to offer strength and comfort,” Emanuel said. “…Our city is richer, our city is greater because of Herbie Johnson.”
The father of three flew in from Atlanta to surprise his daughter at her senior prom, just to tell her how beautiful she looked. He was the one to greet his son, Tommy, a U.S. Marine, home from Afghanistan with a loud whistle, a hug and a can of beer. And he’s the man who married the love of his life, Susan, after just six weeks of dating, his sister Julie Johnson told mourners.
Earlier outside, a dark blue sea of support welcomed Johnson’s family and close friends. Trees and poles on Western near 79th Street were draped in black and purple.
At the front, Ted Johnson, another of the brothers, played the bagpipe in his police uniform.
Then, silence, save for the shuffling of shoes and the hum of helicopters above, greeted Johnson’s casket as his colleagues lifted it off Engine 123.
Hundreds of uniformed firefighters stood and saluted in the cold, lined up by battalions with Johnson’s battalion closest to his family.
The captain’s jacket adorned the front of the Engine, which he rode Friday night to the deadly fire in Chicago’s Gage Park community.
Brian Woods, who survived injuries from the fire, served on the casket detail, Fire Commissioner Jose A. Santiago said.
Woods is doing well, “much better today. He was smiling today,” Santiago said. “We were concerned about him.”
Rosa Ortiz, who lived in the building that burned, was among the mourners hoping to speak to the Johnson family. Ortiz was outside the funeral with her sister, Sylvia Soria.
“We brought flowers. We feel sorry for them,” Soria said.
“She feels so bad,” Soria continued, interpreting for her sister. “He was the last person she saw when he went up to the fire.”
Fire departments from all over the country — and several Canadian cities, too — joined Chicago in mourning Johnson. Some lent the usual moral support. Others, like guys from New York, came specifically for their friend.
Johnson cooked in firehouses after 9/11, and attended firefighter funerals.
“I knew Herbie, that’s why I’m here,” said New York City firefighter James Schneider, who Johnson at a charity event. “Ironically the last time I talked to him was 9/11 [this year], and he said, ‘I’ll see you in Chicago’…“May he rest in peace.”
A golf outing Johnson hosted in Myrtle Beach, S.C., introduced him to firefighters from Charleston; he solidified a bond while offering comfort there after nine firefighters were killed in a 2007 fire.
“Everybody talks about how crazy Herbie was, we just want to talk about what a brother he was,” said Asst. Chief Robert O’Donald, attending the services with firefighters from Charleston.
“Herbie was truly an ambassador for the Chicago Fire Department everywhere he went,” O’Donald said. “He just reeked of brotherhood.”