Chicago Fire: Disaster at the Sing Way

The other morning, Google and Facebook pages were alive with the buzz, profiles changed to badges of mourning, and whispered messages of condolence wafted through the Internet towards the Windy City. All within moments of the word getting out.

“Chicago media is reporting (from the Chicago Medical Examiner) that 2 Firefighters have died in the Line of Duty. NOTE: CFD has not yet confirmed that. Additionally, numerous others were injured when a wall collapsed during that 3-11 alarm fire at an abandoned South Side commercial building this morning. Firefighters searched through rubble for more than an hour as the trapped Firefighters were rescued and rushed to hospitals. ”

Rumors indicated as many as 19 Firefighters may have been injured initially. Prayers of support and words of encouragement  flooded the Internet.  We have become so inter-woven.  So inter-locked.  I look at a photograph in the press, and I see a sea of helmets and wonder to myself, “Is Richie in there?”, just moments after the story hits the press.

E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune / December 22, 2010

"Search and Rescue" Photo by WGN-TV, Chicago Tribune / December 22, 2010

It used to be, firefighters heard about each others misfortunes through word of mouth, the news, and phone calls.  Guys on the West (Left) Coast would often read about firefighter deaths in the latest issue of Firehouse Magazine, our distances being so much greater between the big departments.  Brothers on the East (Right) Coast would know as soon as someone could pick up a phone and start spreading the word.  Phone by phone, newspaper and television. 

That was back in the day.   Now it happens within moments of the information release.  You might get it on Facebook, an email subscription for notification or even a text, ” Hey, …did you hear the news about CFD?”.  Or the first inkling may come when you realize the brother three states over has changed his profile to a shrouded badge.  Its possible I suppose, that several thousand people might be aware of a brother’s passing even before the red car with the chaplain pulls up in front of that same brother’s home, and the dreaded visit begins to take place.  Someone might call and say, “Is your husband on duty today?  Did you hear what’s happening?”  What a terrible way to find out.  A brother from FDNY stopped by one night a few years ago while on one of his many trips and I asked him if he knew the fireman that died the day before while working with this guy’s ladder company.  He looked at me in sudden panic, he hadn’t known himself yet.  All the way across the continent I knew before he did. 

"Searching for Fallen Firefighters" WGN-TV, Chicago Tribune, December 22, 2010

Several years ago, I didn’t know anyone in the Chicago Fire Department.  Now, I would call at least one a good friend.  The world has been changed and along with it, so has the American Fire Service.  If a brother wants to be a part of the nation of firemen, he or she can be so easily, with the click of a computer mouse.  

But for me, it has been a privilege to get to know one Chicago fireman the old-fashioned way.  Face to face.  Years ago, hearing the morning’s news definitely saddened me, like when I heard about the Keokuk, Iowa fire, where three firefighters and three children perished.  But these days, I hear that a brother is down and if I have met someone from that department I instantly want to know if its them.  Checking the websites and Facebook to find any indication of who it was that went down, what company, what are the names?   And in the past decade since 9/11 I have met so many brothers from across the nation, I feel far more connected to the American Fire Service than I ever imagined possible.  Used to be they were just names, now we know somebody that knew them.  Or maybe we knew them ourselves.  How things have changed.

"Injured Firefighter, Chicago Fire"

Photo by E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune December 22, 2010.

These days, I know firemen in Franklin, in Palm Beach, Memphis, Portland, Tualatin, Seattle, Snohomish, Stanwood, Bellingham, South King, Tacoma, the Olympic Penninsula, Yuba City, Yreka, L.A., Tucson, Burmingham, Omaha, Boise, Baltimore, Manchester, Boston, Metro-Dade, New York, South Bend, Indianapolis, and the list goes on.  And some of these brothers, I hold very, very close.  I consider these brothers as good as  blood because of the common bond and friendship we share that goes well beyond a tour of duty in the firehouse.  And then there are the brothers I have personally invested myself in, the brothers I’ve trained, worked with daily.  If a firefighter falls in Brooklyn, I need to know.  One of my boys is there, and one in South Bend, and a few in Seattle and so on.

So when word finally showed up that Richie was okay, he’d been on the scene, even been in the same building, but had gotten out.  What relief.  He and I met at the Leatherhead Convention a few years back and this past year, we took the time to talk with each other  and get to know one another a bit and I found what I always find among Leatherheads, that a fireman from the big city can have the same attitude and opinion about the job as a fireman from a small town.  Mutual respect and love for the job shines through.  A passion for what is right and good about our calling.  Under such conditions brotherhood grows stronger still.  So to know that he was all right, was a great relief.  To know that he lost brothers close to him, brothers he worked with, brings saddness to the holiday.  We thought maybe this year might be different.

Chicago Fire Department

In memoriam, FF Corey D. Ankum, FF Edward J. Stringer of Chicago Fire Department.  Rest In Peace.  RFB.

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