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.
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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.