'Loved by everybody,' firefighter dies after Southwest Side blaze

FiresSeptember 11, 2001 AttacksJose SantiagoRahm EmanuelU.S. Marine CorpsUniversity of ChicagoSouth Shore

A 32-year veteran firefighter remembered as an "all around great guy and great fireman" died Friday night when he was hit by a flashover of flames while battling an extra-alarm blaze in a Gage Park home, officials said.

Capt. Herbert Johnson, just promoted last summer, apparently went into cardiac arrest when intense heat from the flashover damaged his airways and he died as doctors frantically worked on him at the University of Chicago emergency room, officials said.

A mayday was called as the 2-11 fire burst through the frame home in the 2300 block of West 50th Place and Johnson was carried out and paramedics performed CPR on him, said Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford.

He suffered second- and third-degree facial burns, officials said. A second firefighter was injured but was in good condition at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, officals said.

Johnson is survived by his wife, Susan, a daughter and two sons, Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago said outside the hospital hours after the fire. One son is in college and the other in the U.S. Marine Corps. Three brothers are Chicago police officers, a sister is a retired Chicago cop and another brother is a Chicago firefighter.

"This fire is under investigation and our main concern right now is the family," Santiago said, choking back tears.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, joining Santiago, said the fallen firefighter "touched everybody that ran into contact with him. He was a larger than life person."

Tom Ryan, president of Local 2 of the Chicago Fire Fighters Union, was in tears as he told reporters, "We lost a piece of our heart and our soul today.

"Herbie is everything the Chicago Fire Department is about. He's a shining example of what public service is," Ryan said. "We're at a loss of words."

Friday night, a group of people stood behind an ambulance outside the emergency room entrance, hugging one another as Chicago fire and police brass filed in and out of the building.

Soon afterwards, a procession of Chicago fire and police vehicles escorted an ambulance carrying Johnson's body to the Cook County medical examiner's office. Firefighters lined the route and saluted.

Near the hospital, Chicago Fire Department Truck No. 16 sat at the corner of 58th Street and Drexel Avenue with its ladder extended to mid-air and the roar of its engine sounding, a ritual saluting fallen brethren. A firefighter hoisted the American flag atop the ladder.

Johnson is the first Chicago firefighter to die fighting a fire since December 2010, when Edward Stringer and Corey Ankum were killed when the roof of an abandoned South Shore laundry collapsed.

Johnson was assigned to Engine Co. 123 in Gage Park on Friday, but usually worked from firehouses all around the city.

One firefighter who knew Johnson since they were kids said he will always remember his old friend's laugh.

“He was the best, he was the best guy,’’ said Chicago Fire Department Lt. Steve O’Malley, who had been relieved by Johnson around 6 a.m. Friday from Engine 123, Tower Ladder 39, on 51st Street after O’Malley had worked a 48-hour shift.

“He was his usual crazy self, laughing,’’ O’Malley said in a telephone interview, his voice shaking. “He always had a smile on his face."

O’Malley said he and Johnson talked about their old stomping grounds, the St. Basil neighborhood, where they both grew up near 58th and Winchester. They knew each other since grade school.

“I grew up with the whole family,’’ said O’Malley. “He was an all around great guy and great fireman. What a big-time, huge loss to the department. He was loved by everybody.

“We fight fires all the times, we had three that day. But now it hurts. Now it hurts,’’ O'Malley said.

Firefighters were called to the frame home in the Gage Park neighborhood around 5:15 p.m., according to Fire Department spokeswoman Meg Ahlheim. It was quickly raised to a 2-11 alarm, and an emergency medical services plan was called sending six ambulances to the scene, she said.

Family members said eight children, ages 2 to 14, were in the living room with an adult, and other adults were in the second-floor kitchen when they started to see smoke outside the windows.

Alonzo Patino, a relative, was in the second-floor living room with the children, including his 2-year-old daughter, when he saw the smoke. He opened the window and saw smoke coming from the roof.

Patino grabbed his 2-year-old daughter and started getting the other children out of the living room.

"I was scared," Patino said.

Silvia Soria, 30, another relative, was at the home to sell other family members Tupperware and was in the second-floor kitchen. About 10 people were supposed to show up, but only four adults had gotten to the home when one of Soria's nieces came into the kitchen and told them about the smoke.

"First it was a little smoke and then it was a lot," Delgado said.

Everyone ran downstairs and out of the house, she said. A family dog was injured.

Marlin Salgado, 48, lives across the street, and sheltered the children who fled the fire.

Salgado saw a fire truck coming down the street, and saw about eight kids running across the street. "They were frantic, they came out without jackets, some of them came out without shoes."

She brought them into her home, where they stayed for about two hours.

The fire was in the attic when firefighters arrived, Ahlheim said. Once they were inside the building, Johnson was hit by a flash of flames.

"The problem was the damage is done internally from the super-heated air," Langford said. "It compromised his airway and his lungs, and they (the doctors) made a valiant effort...They worked an extended period of time in the ER...above and beyond."

Langford said the fire is "under investigation as to how the fire got to where it was," adding that the department's Office of Fire Investigation was involved.

The mayor noted Johnson's service went beyond the Chicago Fire Department. Johnson was among a group of Chicago firefighters who responded to New York City in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

"When they say he's a brother from the fire department, I think it extended beyond here in Chicago to those of family members that are counted in New York," said Emanuel. "And I think you can hear in everybody's voice...'This doesn't happen to Herbie. This is not what happens to Herbie.' "

Tribune reporter Liam Ford contributed

chicagobreaking@tribune.com

Twitter: @ChicagoBreaking

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FiresSeptember 11, 2001 AttacksJose SantiagoRahm EmanuelU.S. Marine CorpsUniversity of ChicagoSouth Shore
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