The names of the 21 firefighters killed while battling a blaze at the Union Stockyards 100 years ago were being read and a bell rung in their honor Wednesday morning when the "Mayday" alarm came in on the radio of a nearby firetruck. The small group of Chicago firefighters and paramedics commemorating the anniversary immediately turned their attention to the new tragedy. Fearing the worst, they bowed their heads and recited the Lord's Prayer for their comrades battling a blaze about 6 miles away that ultimately took the lives of two firefighters.
"It was unbelievable. It just stopped all of us in our tracks," said Bill Cosgrove, a retired firefighter who documented the Dec. 22, 1910, fire in a book, "Chicago's Forgotten Tragedy." "It was a matter of a few hours and a hundred years later, and we have the same type of incident."
In addition to the timing, the fire Wednesday was all the more shocking because firefighter fatalities have become increasingly rare in Chicago and across the state over the last two decades, largely due to advances in technology and improved safety training, according to Terry Cox, executive director of the Illinois Professional Firefighters Association.
Wednesday's fire, in which the roof of an abandoned building collapsed, brought to 18 the number of Chicago firefighters killed in the line of duty since 1990. The latest fatalities, Corey Ankum and Edward Stringer, are among three Chicago firefighters killed this year, along with Christopher Wheatley, who fell 35 feet to the ground while battling a restaurant fire in August.
Wednesday's blaze was the deadliest for firefighters in Chicago since February 1998, when two firefighters were killed in a fire at a tire store in the Beverly neighborhood.
"Deaths are not typical anymore," said Cox, whose organization works closely with the Illinois Fire Service Institute to provide extensive training to fire departments. "We are working hard to get the number of fire deaths down, but there's no way to predict a wall or roof collapse, though there are some pretty strong indicators. You just have to try to avoid those things."
In an average year in the U.S., 32,500 fires occur in vacant buildings, but over the last 20 years, firefighter deaths in such blazes have been rare, fire safety groups said.
Nationally, the number of on-the-job firefighter deaths dropped to 82 in 2009, the first time it fell below 100 in three years, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Most of the fatalities were blamed on heart attacks from overexertion or related medical issues. The second most prevalent cause was vehicle crashes, experts said.
While the number of deaths last year was lower than the 10-year average of 98, officials said it is too soon to call it a trend.
"When the number has gone down, that's a very positive thing. But the fact that we have more than 80 firefighters dying in a year means we need to do more to ensure the safety of our nation's fire service," said association spokeswoman Lorraine Carli. "When we see what happened in Chicago, it is a sad reminder that we need to be vigilant in doing as much as possible to prevent firefighter fatalities."
Written by Chicago Tribune
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