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Report details how Chicago fire captain died

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Updated: January 5, 2014 6:38AM



Chicago firefighters heard Capt. Herbert Johnson yell, “Get out of here!” as an eruption of smoke and fire rushed at them on the second story of an apartment building on Nov. 2, 2012.

A firefighter/paramedic who was with Johnson heard him yell and then go silent and found him unconscious on the floor, tangled in the gear of another firefighter. But he didn’t have a radio and couldn’t find Johnson’s radio to notify others that Johnson was down. So he screamed a distress call to anyone within earshot: “Mayday!”

The chaotic scene is detailed in the findings of an almost year-long federal investigation into the death of Johnson, 54, who died from injuries sustained in the fire in the 2300 block of West 50th Street in the Gage Park community. A 32-year department veteran, Johnson was the first Chicago firefighter to die in the line of duty since 2010.

“Herbie died a hero’s death,” said Tom Ryan, president of Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2. “He did what he was supposed to do. His last effort on this job was to make sure his members got out safely.”

Firefighter deaths in the line of duty are investigated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The NIOSH report on Johnson’s death, published in September, says the fire worsened when a firefighter on the first floor opened doors to an enclosed porch, feeding oxygen to the fire.

It says that caused a flashover of smoke and fire in the stairwell leading to the second floor where Johnson was laying down firehose.

Improper risk assessment, a lack of protective equipment, miscommunication and low staffing levels were among contributing factors in the death of Johnson, a resident of the Morgan Park community, according to the report.

It follows a previous NIOSH report that blamed a shortage of radios, in part, for the deaths of two other Chicago firefighters in December 2010 after a roof collapsed at a vacant commercial building.

Johnson’s widow, Susan, issued a statement Tuesday that it was painful for her and her family to “read the details surrounding Herbie’s last day. Our hope is that this information can be used to make improvements that will save other firefighters’ lives in the future.”

Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford on Tuesday questioned some of the report’s conclusions, saying that “fire is not always predictable.”

“You can train and train and train and things happen,” Langford said. “Sometimes what should be a triumph becomes a tragedy.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel responded Tuesday to the critical federal report by demanding answers from the fire department.

“My office has talked to (Fire Commissioner) Jose Santiago ... (Tuesday) and told him I want to see their response to that report and the recommendations in it so we don’t see what happened to Mr. Johnson happen again and that we have the type of training to ensure that doesn’t happen again,” the mayor said.

The NIOSH report says Johnson and other firefighters went to the building’s second floor, even though a second-story resident told a fire commander that no one else was up there.

“Risks taken to save property should always be less than those to save lives,” the report states.

Langford said the building had the “potential for still having someone inside,” despite the resident’s claim.

“Because someone says everyone is out, we don’t always know for sure,” Langford said. “This fire flared up suddenly, and from what we can determine, that is what caught Captain Johnson off guard.”

The report says Johnson was not wearing proper protective gear, such as his firefighting hood and gloves, causing him to suffer burns on unprotected areas, including his throat and lungs. He also may have started to have problems breathing when he was retreating toward a second-story kitchen, possibly dislodging his facepiece along the way, according to the report.

It says that when the firefighter opened the doors to the porch and “saw the fire accelerate in the rear stairway,” he did not alert Johnson or the commanding officer, the report says.

“In a perfect world, everyone would have a way to say they heard the message,” Langford said. “A perfect world is one thing, the chaos of a fire scene is another.”

Langford said the fire department was in the process of issuing new radios to firefighters when the fire occurred

The NIOSH report also says the commander did not immediately create a command post at the fire scene and that two of the fire companies that initially responded to the fire were each riding one person short. The two extra firefighters would have “provided a more efficient search and fire suppression,” according to the report.

Langford doubted that two more firefighters would have saved Johnson’s life.

“We had enough companies on the scene that being down one person on two companies had no effect,” he said.

Ryan said a lack of firefighting personnel puts added stress on firefighters.

“We strive to do the best we can every day, and our main objective is always for everyone to come home safely,” Ryan said. “In our line of work that doesn’t always happen.”



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