|Photo courtesy of Bill Savage|
I found it so interesting, that I ran the story in two parts. This is the first part, and drew almost no reaction. The second part caused a huge controversy, ending up with an apology from the Chicago Fire Department, all over the answer to an innocent question. But we'll get to that tomorrow.
Firefighters will refer to some fires as "good fires" while worrying that outsiders might think they are glad a building burned, when of course they aren't.
What they are is grateful that, after days and weeks of waiting, when confronted by the need to do what they are trained to do, they did their duty.
A firefighter invited me to lunch at his station house. We got to talking about a fire they fought last month. Firefighters are a self-effacing bunch. "Any other firefighter would have done exactly the same thing," said one, echoing a common team-effort sentiment. They were just doing their jobs, they said, but I convinced them that people are interested in those jobs, in how to fight a good fire.
Dinner was pot roast and potatoes Friday, Nov. 6 at the Elston Avenue firehouse, home to Engine 106, Truck 13 and Ambulance 48.
No calls came in -- they ate uninterrupted, with the usual jovial banter at the large wooden table with the seal of the Chicago Fire Department and its motto "We're There When You Need Us" emblazoned in gold.
They scraped their oval platters and set them in the dishwasher and relaxed for a few minutes when, at 7:51 p.m., the speaker crackled a terse alarm: fire at 3037 W. Belmont.
"Basically right down the street," said Lt. Frank Isa, the senior officer on duty.
Usually, when fire trucks show up at a scene, whatever smokey frying pan caused somebody to call 911 has been dealt with. Modern construction has cut back on fires; on most calls, they never run out a foot of hose.
This wasn't one of those calls.
"We knew we had a fire," explained Isa. "We could see the smoke -- haze in the street. It was night, but you could see it in the streetlights. And you could smell it too."
Engine 106 carries hundreds of feet of hose and five firefighters.
"Everyone has their jobs," said Rich Irwin, whose job that night was to go to the rear of the building for what firefighters call "forcible entry" -- breaking down the door.
Irwin carried a Halligan bar -- a steel tool with a crowbar at one end and a wedge and a spike at the other and used a sledgehammer to pound the wedge into the gap between the door and the frame.
After prying the door open, Erwin saw that the back stairs were engulfed in flames -- nobody was going up that way.
Meanwhile, Juan Lopez and Anthony Belke went to the roof, using the aerial ladder on Truck 13, which had pulled up to the three-story building, with a vacant beauty salon on the ground floor and apartments on the second and third.
"We knew it was a nasty fire," said Lopez. "When we were going up the ladder, the smoke was traveling down the aerial ladder. Thick, heavy, black smoke. It was weird. I'd never seen it like that."
To fight a fire, you have to release its heat. Lopez and Belke skidded along the peak of the roof, straddling it, and, positioning themselves with the wind at their backs, used their axes to hack holes through the roof. The fire "came out like a blowtorch."
John DiSanti was the "heel man," helping stretch out the hose on the second floor -- if hose isn't laid out properly, it'll tangle, and someone trying to charge toward a fire will come up short like a dog racing to the end of a leash tied to a tree.
"You want hose to reach every part of that building," said Isa.
Enough hose isn't much good unless there's water coming out of it—Ed Lashley was "the hydrant man" whose job it was to find the nearest hydrant, open it up and attach the line from the pumper.
Tino Durovic was "on the pipe," meaning he held the nozzle of the hose, going through the front door and up the stairs. Isa followed him.
Soon there were 50 firefighters and paramedics on the scene -- sending a curtain of water between 3037 W. Belmont and the neighboring building, whose vinyl siding already had started to melt, conducting a "primary search" on the second floor, looking for victims using everything from their hands to a high-tech thermal-imaging camera.
Others used pike poles to pull down the ceiling. They could see the flames moving inside the floor above, pulsing in waves, like a living thing.
Durovic and Isa climbed the stairs toward the third floor, directing the hose straight up, onto the ceiling -- with no back stairs, they had to keep this staircase open.
Durovic reached the door to the third floor and kicked it in. A wave of heat rolled out, steam so intense it burned his face and ears under his mask and protective hood.
Downstairs, Irwin had circled around to the front, where he met a hysterical woman.
"My baby's in there!" she shouted at him. "Save my baby!"
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 4, 2009