Tribune (January 16, 2011) the Chicago Fire Department continues to be open
about expressing publicly the reality that horrible things happen to good
people and then ultimately affect those left behind to carry on their careers
and families. In this candid article these brave firefighters honestly express
the mental health challenges of returning to duty after the loss of two of
their firefighter brothers.
motivate others to do so across the country in an effort to make the fire service
even stronger than we already are. God bless CFD and their members.
More than three weeks after a
South Side blaze killed two firefighters in a building collapse, all the
injured firefighters have been released from hospitals, but the recovery has been
gradual for those with even minor physical wounds
Firefighters of Engine Company 72,
Tower Ladder 34, Battalion 23. (E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune / January
and trapped colleagues screaming for help.
Even driving near the scene of the Chicago Fire
Department‘s deadliest blaze in more than a decade can be
And, in the quiet moments of the day, some still linger on their final
exchanges with the two firefighters who perished.
“It weighs on you,” said fire Lt. Bob Kawa, who suffered a broken
hand and fractured vertebra when the roof of an abandoned building fell on him
and other firefighters. “It happened so fast. It just didn’t seem
More than three weeks after the Dec. 22 fire that killed firefighters Edward
Stringer and Corey Ankum and injured 17 others, all the wounded firefighters
have been released from the hospital. But recovery, emotional and physical, is
True to the teamwork nature of firefighting, they talk only collectively about
the struggle of carrying on. They were reluctant even to be photographed alone,
each man unwilling to take the spotlight when so many others suffered as well.
They talk about struggling to fall asleep, still feeling the suffocating crush
of bricks. Of losing their appetites. They get distracted from ordinary tasks.
A few say they drift out of conversations or forget, for a moment, where they
are driving on errands.
When firefighter Gerald Glover, who is Ankum’s half-brother, tried to return
recently to the South Chicago
firehouse where the two had worked, his blood pressure rose dangerously, and he
had to go to a hospital.
“I was trying to keep busy,” said Glover, who wasn’t on the fire call
but hurried to the scene after hearing about the blaze, “(but) it’s off and
on. I’ve got to deal with it in my own way.”
On the day that Glover’s comrades died, the call seemed routine — a small fire,
which authorities believe was accidental and ignited in the back of the
one-story former laundry business in the 1700 block of East 75th Street.
But as the firefighters searched the building for any possible homeless
squatters, the truss roof gave way, killing Stringer and Ankum. The most
seriously hurt were entangled in debris.
Firefighter Chris Parks, 28, who escaped without injuries, said he is haunted
by the last words he and Ankum shared.
The young firefighters were finishing up inside the vacant South Shore building
when Parks noticed the roof sagging above them.
“I said, ‘This don’t look right at all,'” recalled Parks. “He
said the same thing.”
Parks said Ankum went to find a lieutenant. Seconds later, they heard a
rumbling overhead as the roof collapsed. Parks narrowly escaped and remembered
frantically digging to help rescue those trapped.
On Parks’ first day back after the fire, he couldn’t stay through his shift.
“I keep hearing the sound of that roof,” said Parks, sitting in his
South Loop home. “I just keep thinking about digging and not getting
Kawa, who was trapped beneath the rubble, saw only blackness in the seconds
after the collapse. But, then he heard the voices of other firefighters rushing
to his rescue. Through a small opening in the debris, they grabbed Kawa’s hand
and told him they were going to get him out.
In those dark moments, as he fought to breathe beneath the wreckage crushing
his chest, Kawa’s thoughts flashed to his friend, fire Lt. Scott Gillen. Almost
exactly a decade ago, Gillen was killed on duty, struck by a drunken driver as
he helped at a crash scene. Kawa was the first to run to Gillen’s side, trying
to comfort him in the last hours of his life. As Kawa waited to be dug out last
month, he thought of his friend again.
helping me to keep breathing,” Kawa said.
The fire triggered memories of other horrific tragedies Chicago firefighters
have faced over the years — memories of stairs that gave way under foot, of
walls that came crashing down, of small fires that unexpectedly engulfed rooms.
Lt. Tim O’Toole, who was pinned under the debris and made it out with just a
swollen ankle, said last month’s fire keeps bringing back his memories of a
1985 blaze in which three firefighters died after a roof collapsed.
He and other firefighters tried to get into the building where those men had
fallen, but the blaze made rescue impossible, he said. O’Toole said
firefighters’ recovery hinged on supporting one another.
“You have your family at home, and you go to wo
rk and you have a different
kind of family there, and that’s what helps you cope,” O’Toole said.
“You go through it together.”
In the past weeks, support has come from everywhere, from friends and
colleagues, strangers and firefighters hundreds of miles away. It has come in
the form of bowls of soup and shoveled driveways, hospital bedside vigils and
sympathetic listeners. The department brought in firefighters from New York
City — devastated when hundreds of their own were killed on Sept. 11, 2001 — to
privately talk to survivors of the fatal fire.
Robert Scott, director of behavioral health and
wellness for the Los Angeles Fire
Department, said firefighters are trained to build a wall that
separates them from their emotions in order to do their jobs. He said that wall
is punctured when they respond to chaotic scenes, such as when children are
severely injured or killed.
And when firefighters die in the line of duty, “It cuts right to their
heart,” Scott said.
Tom Ryan, president of Chicago’s firefighters union,said tragedies are
especially wearing on firefighters who live and work together in a firehouse
for 24 consecutive hours at a time.
“It’s like losing a family member,” said Ryan, a firefighter for more
than 20 years.
At the crumpled laundry building, a makeshift memorial of candles, stuffed
animals and silk flowers still stands by two white crosses bearing the names of
Ankum, 34, who joined the department in 2009, and Stringer, 47, a 12-year
At the homes of injured firefighters, welcome home signs adorn front yards, and
cards from well-wishers rest on window sills and coffee tables.