I was getting out of my car at Jackson Park Harbor to cover a dog rescue Tuesday morning when my editor called to say an extra-alarm fire had broken out in a condo building 10 minutes away. We already had a reporter there, but the situation grew more dire each minute.
By the time I parked closer to the condos, a man had died and a woman was seriously injured in the blaze, which started on the seventh floor of a 16-story building. Firefighters, police officers, and reporters packed the street in front of the building, and residents stared at the damage in awe. One of them, 20-year-old Jay Fizer, was at the center of a crush of reporters that, among other details, wanted to know how he made it from his 10th-floor unit to the lobby.
"No help," Fizer said. "Just God."
Hours later, we learned a second man had died.
More details about the three victims emerged Wednesday morning. The two men, John Fasula and Jameel Johnson, died from smoke inhalation shortly after rescuing an elderly woman by sending her to the lobby in an elevator, police said. The families of the men were in what one relative called "total shock." Friends and authorities called them heroes whose selflessness wasn't surprising given their personalities.
It wasn't clear early on why the men were in the building -- the Cook County's medical examiner's office said they didn't live there -- so a few colleagues and I began looking into their respective lines of work. From the porch of a Bridgeport home, Fasula's sister-in-law told me it was common for him to take up "side jobs" when he wasn't working as a maintenance manager for the CTA. However, neither she nor building officials could tell me why he was on the seventh floor Tuesday morning. Police said the men were doing contract work. Building officials did not know whether they were working together or had teamed up to help residents when the fire broke out.
I've covered stories involving tragic acts and death before. But not one where the subjects died while risking their lives to save others.
The answer to this lingering question -- what exactly Fasula and Johnson were working on, and why they stayed -- will fill in a major blank on what is shaping up to be a heroic narrative.