Chicago fire personnel evacuate an injured firefighter at a extra-alarm fire at 1700 East 75th Street. (E. Jason Wambsgans/ Chicago Tribune) | MORE PHOTOS
Corey Ankum and Edward Stringer were among a dozen firefighters putting out a blaze in an abandoned building at daybreak today when suddenly the roof gave way.
Steven Ellerson, a 20-year veteran, and others swarmed inside to rescue them. "He heard someone calling for help and he looked for him," Ellerson's brother Maurice Matthews said.
Ellerson found Ankum on the floor, gasping.
Firefighters dig through rubble as they search for trapped colleagues after a brick wall collapsed at a South Side fire in a vacant commercial building. (WGN-TV)
"He found him and knew he was struggling to breathe so he took off his mask to give him some oxygen," Matthews said. "Corey's head was stuck somehow and they couldn't get him out. So my brother went to give him his coat but they came and got my brother out of there. My brother didn't want to leave him, but there was no choice.
"It was a chaotic scene," Matthews said. "These guys put their lives on the line every day."
Stringer and another trapped firefighter was rushed to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, police closing ramps and clearing the way for the ambulances. Ankum was taken to Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.
Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said both firefighters died of trauma. Ankum had been with the department less than two years, Stringer about 12 years.
The other trapped firefighter taken to Northwestern was "stable," according to Chicago Fire Cmsr. Robert Hoff. In all, 19 firefighters suffered injuries, Hoff said at an afternoon news conference. He said the injuries of those who survived were not considered life-threatening.
This is the worst fire for the department since February 1998, when two firefighters died in a blaze. A roof collapsed at 10611 S. Western Avenue, killing Patrick King, 40, and Anthony Lockhart, 40. They were among the first to enter the building. In August, Christopher Wheatley died when he fell about 35 feet off a ladder while battling a fire at a West Loop restaurant.
The deaths came on the 100th anniversary of a huge fire at the Union Stockyards that claimed the life of 21 Chicago firefighters, the single greatest loss in U.S. history of professional big-city firefighters until Sept. 11, 2001.
Late this morning, dozens of firefighters stood at attention, removing their caps and saluting, as Ankum's body was taken from the hospital and put in an ambulance. A police escort led the ambulance to the medical examiner's office.
A similar procession with a dozen department vehicles left Northwestern just after noon with Stringer's body.
A little before 1 p.m., a member of the Fire Department walked out of the Cook County morgue carrying a folded City of Chicago flag and a red plastic bag and clothing that one of the fallen firefighters was wearing when he died.
The firefighter said about 50 members of the department gathered inside the medical examiner's office to honor their dead comrades' bravery and service.
"Bravery, honor, valor, and a commitment to duty. It's just paying tribute," he said. "We're all devastated."
He described the dead as "excellent men and excellent firemen."
The firefighter's job was keeping track of the fallen firefighter's belongings. "It's an honorable task," he said.
Hoff said firefighters were in the building and on the roof, searching for hot spots and whether anyone was inside, when the roof collapsed. The two who died were inside the building, he said.
"The search effort was aggressive, two members were found immediately," Hoff said at a news conference. "Every firefighter that was there did the best they could to save their brothers.
"We had to use some extrication devices to get at a couple of them. The structure was a flat roof in the front and a bow-string truss in the back. The roof was made of heavy timber. We're investigating what caused that heavy roof to collapse.
"We can only put a theory out there that, because the fire wasn't that well involved in that area. . .that maybe the snow and ice (were a factor). Maybe the age of the building contributed?"
Hoff said officials decided to search inside the building because "people in this kind of weather seek refuge and we take no building as being vacant. We do it cautiously, but we go in for people who may try to get out of the cold."
Hoff said there was "no indication to the chief officers and company officers at the scene that (the roof) was in danger of collapse. That's when we make our decision to go in and do a search."
Hoff would not speculate on what caused the fire.
Firefighters -- their faces and uniforms covered in soot -- shook their heads as they embraced one another after the search was called off.
At Northwestern, about half a dozen police cars and several fire vehicles were parked in front of the emergency room after two ambulances arrived from the fire. Truck 122 pulled up and three firefighters walked in, including a lieutenant. One firefighter from Truck 122 was on a cell phone and wiped away tears with his jacket.
Robert Smart, owner of the Smart Bros. Car Wash and Detailing next door to the burned building, said he arrived at his business at 7 a.m. to find the block swarming with firefighters.
He saw two people being brought out on stretchers, followed by two firefighters. He got a good look at one fireman. "He looked pretty bad," said Smart, adding the firefighter did not appear conscious.
Rescuers appeared to be trying to revive the injured firefighter in the middle of the street as they waited for an ambulance to arrive.
Jorico Smart, who with his father Robert has owned the car wash for 16 years, said he has called police at least a dozen times in recent years to report people trespassing in the abandoned building next door.
Smart characterized the trespassers as squatters. Last month, Smart's brother called police to report a break-in.
Chuck Dai, who co-owns the building with a younger brother, said he has been struggling to keep squatters from entering ever since his laundry business at the site failed about six years ago and he stopped paying property taxes on the site.
"It's been a tiresome battle just to keep it buttoned up and everything," said Dai, 61, speaking from another laundromat he owns nearby.
Though the property has been boarded up several times, he said, "somehow they managed to break in."
Dai said he had no idea how the fire started. He learned about the dramatic rescue attempt and the death of two city firefighters while watching the morning news in horror, he said.
"I'm pretty down right now," Dai said, his voice growing hoarse with emotion. "I'm at a loss for words about the whole situation. I feel bad about the firemen getting hurt."
The fire broke out about 6:54 a.m. in the abandoned one-story brick building in the 1700 block of East 75th Street.
The fire was raised to two and then three alarms to save the trapped firefighters; Hoff said that there was no indication that the fire was in the truss roof at the time the roof collapsed. A "mayday" was called. Firefighters also reported having problems with frozen hydrants, but Hoff said only one hydrant was frozen and it was not hampering firefighting efforts when the collapse happened.
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