Two makeshift memorials were in place today outside the Southwest Side home where a firefighter suffered fatal injuries Friday evening, and results of an initial investigation remained undetermined until further tests can be done on a water heater.
A friend of the dead firefighter was among several firefighters who stood vigil outside the home this morning. The man, who asked not to be identified, came to 2315 West 50th Place "just to try to figure out what happened."
That question is one of the big ones that remains the day after Capt. Herbert Johnson, 54, died after being injured in the fire at a Gage Park home. Johnson apparently went into cardiac arrest when intense heat from a flashover damaged his airways and died as doctors worked on him at the University of Chicago emergency room, officials said
In a flashover, "air becomes super-heated and what appears as rolling dark smoke suddenly erupts into solid flame," said Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford. "The smoke heats past the so-called flash point and becomes all flame. [It is] very hard to escape as temps are well over 1000 degrees. But we don't know if that was [the] case yet."
Johnson died from inhalation injuries from a building fire in an accident, the Cook County medical examiner's office determined today.
Investigations into what exactly happened that led to his death began today, and a water heater in the attic "is of interest at the source," Langford said through the department's official Twitter account.
However, a final determination is suspended until the water heater can be analyzed by engineers, he said. As of now the report by the Office of Fire Investigations states "undetermined suspended." No timetable for the final report was available.
The memorials -- one a cross made out of two pieces of wood and a second cross with "Captain Herbert Johnson" and "age 54" written on it in black marker -- are on each end of the front of the house, which is guarded by police.
A pair of firefighters approached yellow tape draped around vans parked in front of the house and stood for a few moments before getting back into their cars and driving away.
The Office of Fire Investigations Major Incident Response Unit arrived and the investigators stood with hands in their pockets trying to keep warm on a chilly Saturday morning, waiting for others to arrive. Neighbors passed by and paused in front of the house before moving along.
The house, a 2½-story structure with blue siding, a red porch and white trim around the windows, has a gaping hole in a roof that appeared to have collapsed into the building. Burnt debris is littered around the house and large bootprints are imprinted in the mud in the parkway. Puddles still remain in the curb area and water could be seen running down the stairs inside the dwelling.
Halloween decorations are still draped on the building and the fence outside.
The neighborhood is filled with wood-frame homes of the same style, with a smattering of brick homes mixed in. No other homes appeared to be damaged by the blaze.
Firefighters had been called to the neighborhood around 5:15 p.m. Friday, according to Fire Department spokeswoman Meg Ahlheim. The blaze was quickly raised to a 2-11 alarm, and an Emergency Medical Services Plan 1 was called, sending six ambulances to the scene, she said.
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.
A mayday was called as the fire raced through the home and as Johnson was carried out paramedics performed CPR on him, said Langford. Johnson 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, officials said.
"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," with members of the Office of Fire Investigation on-scene today.
Julie Grysztar, 27, who lived in a coach house next door to the home that burned, said Johnson was the first firefighter she saw enter the building. She and her husband yelled "watch out" because of flames shooting out of the back of the building and debris falling down into their yard.
"It was hot, there was debris and flames and stuff from the fire in our yard," she said. "It was so bad."
Chicagoan William Holt, 61, who had known Johnson since they were teenagers and saw him last weekend at a Brother Rice-Mount Carmel football game, lingered outside the crime tape, holding back tears, after coming to the scene to see how bad it was.
"It looks horrible … real bad," he said.
Grysztar said she saw the firefighters bringing Johnson out of the building and hustling a gurney up to the front of the house. She also said that the firefighters all kissed Johnson's forehead before they put him in the ambulance.
The firefighter standing outside the home earlier this morning had been on the phone with Johnson when the alarm came out that called Johnson to the fire that claimed his life.
"The last words I said to him were 'Be safe, old dude,' " he said.