Walter Patmon Jr. had to wait nearly a decade after he took the Chicago firefighter's exam before he fulfilled his boyhood dream of working for the department. He was then 43 old for a rookie firefighter but he quickly gained a reputation as reliable and helpful to co-workers, particularly newcomers to the demanding work, colleagues said.
"He put himself out to help you in any way he could," said Dave Beason, who worked with Patmon for the past six years. "Whenever you knew you were going to work with him, you knew you were going to have a good day."
On Monday morning, Beason was hanging purple bunting at Engine Company 121's station house in Beverly in memoriam to Patmon. In a blow for a department still shaken from its first death on the job in two years, the 18-year veteran died Sunday night of a heart attack less than an hour after returning from a minor fire, authorities said.
Patmon, 61, was cleaning equipment when he experienced shortness of breath, Fire Department spokesman Will Knight said. He was taken to Little Company of Mary Hospital and Health Care Centers, where he was pronounced dead.
Patmon's death came just three days after Capt. Herbert "Herbie" Johnson, a 32-year department veteran, was buried following an emotional funeral attended by hundreds of firefighters and friends. He died Nov. 2 while battling an extra-alarm blaze at a Gage Park residence.
"We are all in a state of shock and disbelief at this point," Tom Ryan, president of Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, said of the two line-of-duty deaths just nine days apart. "Now we have lost another valued member of our department."
Patmon's widow, Diane, showed remarkable poise Monday as she answered reporters' questions outside her Burnside neighborhood home just hours after her husband's death, about 15 months before his mandatory retirement.
Her husband was among those who attended Johnson's funeral Friday, she noted.
"He came back all dressed up, and I told him how handsome he looked," she said.
She said she had no fear when her husband went to work Sunday.
"Whatever happens, it's always in God's hands," she said.
About 10 p.m. Sunday, Patmon was among the firefighters who responded to reports of smoke in the 1500 block of West 99th Street, Knight said. Firefighters discovered meat burning on a stove in the kitchen of a single-family house.
After the firefighters returned to the station house at 1700 95th St. about 10:30 p.m., Patmon fell ill. He was pronounced dead at 11:21 p.m.
On Monday morning, a procession of fire and police vehicles followed as Patmon's body was taken to the medical examiner's office. Dozens of firefighters and police officers lined the streets outside the West Side office, saluting as the vehicles passed. A truck ladder held up a large U.S. flag in Patmon's honor.
Patmon's death reinforces the inherent risks that come with working such a physically demanding job, Ryan said.
"Even when you do everything right, the wrong thing can happen," he said. "The equipment you wear to protect yourself from burns and injury is very encompassing. You are subject to core temperature problems, and your temperature can (increase) dramatically. That puts a stress and strain on your heart. It's a hidden danger that most people don't know about or appreciate."
Fire officials said Patmon's death was considered in the line of duty because he was working at the time. That will entitle his wife to his pension, and his three grown daughters are eligible for city, state and federal survivors benefits, authorities said.
Patmon grew up in Chicago's Auburn-Gresham community and graduated from Calumet High School.
"He always wanted to be a firefighter since he was a child," his widow told reporters.
The couple met while both worked at Michael Reese Hospital. They married in 1979. He later took a job as a truck driver but tired of life on the road away from his family, said Irving Brown Sr., Patmon's longtime friend and former colleague.
"I told him to take the (firefighter) test so that he could get a better job," Brown said. "It paid more, the job security was better, they didn't lay off."
Patmon took the test in 1985 and did well, Brown said. Afterward he kept calling the department, hoping to be hired. But nine years passed before he was hired in July 1994.
"He was elated about getting the job. He was very proud to be a fireman," Brown said.
Patmon joined the department before strict age limits were put in place, said Larry Langford, a spokesman for the department. Since 2000, recruits must enter the Fire Academy before they turn 38. In Chicago, firefighters are required to retire at 63.
Firefighters must pass a physical ability test when they are hired, but once they start working, it is their responsibility to stay in shape, Langford said.
"They are not tested periodically, but if you get out of shape, you can't do the job," he said. "There are physical aspects to every run you make. If you can't do it, people are going to know it."
At the Beverly fire station, Patmon was known as a father figure. He worked as an assigned firetruck driver and trained others on how to handle the rig. He developed a reputation at work and in his neighborhood for his spicy barbecue recipe.
Neighbors remembered him for his tidy lawn as well.
"He took a lot of pride in his house," said Maurnice Ambrose, Patmon's next-door neighbor.
On Monday, a steady stream of friends and family drifted into the house to share memories of Patmon and offer condolences. Some wives of other firefighters brought dishes of food and offered words of comfort.
"Today it felt like he would be home, like he usually comes home," Diane Patmon told reporters.
At the station house, Michael Griffin, an emergency medical technician, said the mood there had been somber for most of the day, especially because Patmon was so close to retirement.
"You hope that most guys get to the end of the road and leave on their own instead of being what they call a hero," he said. "I think everybody should have that instead of the other way."
Written by Chicago Tribune
Courtesy of YellowBrix - YellowBrix