Wooden Ladders, Steel Men


By Sam Garfield

Jan 30, 1958

(North Kenwood)-Our city is under siege, and it seems only a handful of brave souls are out there fighting.

During the past two weeks, at least 10 people have lost their lives in fires. All on Chicago’s South Side; all in slums; all Negro victims. One couple –Roy and Betty Williams– lost all six of their children when an explosion and fire ravaged their South Lake Park tenement. The saddest fact is that these slum dwellings –these fire traps– should have been identified by the City as dangerous and hazardous. Make no mistake, if these fires raced up Michigan Boulevard killing people of wealth, there would be a hue and cry on Floor Five of City Hall. But these were slum people. They lived with the rats and roaches in wretched buildings illegally reconverted by greedy owners to make more room for more rent and more rats and more roaches. And more fires. We’ve all driven by these places, and we’ve all looked the other way. All of us: public officials; slumlords; insurance companies; banks; the press. Everyone except those people whose duty it is to risk their own lives by rushing into these infernos to save lives –the Blue Shirts of the Chicago Fire Department.

“When we pull up to the fire at one of these tenements, we size up the building visually,” said Tom Colletti of Engine Company 45, at Forty-Sixth and Cottage Grove, one of the busiest fire houses in the City. “The flames are running wild, the rats are fleeing the building, and we’re about to go in. We try to assess how the place is put together. And that’s hard to do because these buildings have been chopped apart. They were built for, let’s say 10 residences, and now there’s probably anywhere from 100 to 150 people living there, with plywood walls and jerry-rigged wiring. These buildings don’t have fire doors, meaning the fire rushes right through every door. And there’s trash and debris everywhere, blocking hallways and stairwells. In the dark, you have no way of knowing where the next blockade will be. And there’s always hidden fire behind makeshift walls. Going into these places, into heavy smoke and fire, when you’re not sure where you’re going, it scares the daylights out of you. And all the time you’re constantly looking for people.

“You’re scared of being trapped in the total darkness. We rely on the buddy system; always move about with another fireman. We feel the heat on our face and work in that direction, but with these converted buildings it’s tough. The lower floors usually have burglar bars on the windows, and in the heavy smoke, when you can barely see a few feet in front of you, you can easily get trapped or step onto a floor that’s ready to go. And that’s a fireman’s nightmare.”

The winter, Colletti said, presents its own particular set of problems for fighting slum fires.

“For starters, these buildings have stand pipes running up their sides, but in the cold temperatures, they freeze up. This means we have to find fire hydrants near the building that aren’t frozen, and many times on a big fire we use several, snaking the hoses through the snow to the building. Then we have to hump the three-inch hoses with heavy brass connectors all the way up the stairwell. When we put out the flames in the rooms, another winter problem surfaces: Once the flames go out, the heat, smoke and gasses dissipate, but the rooms are still very hot. The fire can heat the inside to 1,800-degrees, and the water we use on the fire causes steam to build up and roll through the building’s interior. It’s impossible to see until the temperatures equalize.”
When wild flames block the stairwells, the Blue Shirts carry heavy hoses up ladders and break windows for entry. Once inside, in thick, searing smoke, they crawl along the floors, trying to suck in small amounts of fresh air, all the time dragging their hoses and looking for people.

“Lint and dirt and God knows what gets in your nose as you crawl on the floor. You try to get fresh air any way you can –like breathing into the pipe (nozzle)– as you feel your way in total darkness on the floor. At the end of the pipe, along with the water, there’s a tiny amount of fresh air, so we breathe into the pipe.”

Colletti rescued several people at the South Lake Park Fire, carrying them down ladders.

“It’s exhausting and difficult, especially when the people are panicking and moving on your shoulder as you bring them down the ladders in the black night. But it’s all about experience and teamwork for us; that’s the only way we can save lives –by working together. We call it ‘wooden ladders, steel men.’ The fire on Lake Park, a 5-11 alarm, people were panicking and throwing their babies out of windows, even though we were there, on the scene, ladders up, pulling people out. You have no idea what you would do when fire is licking at your pants and you’re trying to save your child. The hardest part for a fireman, though, is when we can’t make the rescue.

“The worse thing is the kids. I’ve pulled many bodies out of fires, carrying someone’s dead child down a ladder, still trying to breathe life into the body, but all the while knowing I got there too late. Last Christmastime, we fought a small home fire, a wooden home. The mother and kids were putting up the Christmas tree when one of the kids stepped on a live tree light. It exploded and the flash caught the tree on fire. The mother panicked and did the worst possible thing she could do –run the kids up to the attic for safety. When we got up there, after we put out the fire, I found the bodies. The mother was in a fetal position, her two kids huddled in her arms, all roasted. When we carried them out, there was a clean, white spot on the floor; the rest of the floor was black with soot. Something like that…it never leaves you.”

As you read this column, hopefully you noticed a big part of the story Colletti failed to mention. Firemen are also victims of this siege. They, too, have wives. They,
too, have babies. But heroes never see themselves as the story.

Copyright © 2011. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.

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