A fire commissioner’s words on tragedy, tempered by his family history. 2 firefighters killed in building collapse risked everything; so did commissioner’s dad in similar tragedy 48 years ago
A column by Chicago Tribune Columnist John Kass provides a poinent reminder of the who we are and why we do what we do……
With the soot still on his face and his eyes rimmed red, Chicago Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff did something no one in his position ever wants to do:
Stand in front of reporters and tell the story of a fire that claimed the lives of two of his firefighters, Corey Ankum, 34, and Edward Stringer, 47.
Hoff had been at the scene, and then spent time with the families of the dead, so he kept the sentiment to a minimum and recited the facts:
Just before 7 a.m., there was report of a fire at a vacant South Side laundromat. One group of firefighters put out the flames in a building office. The other group began searching for possible homeless squatters seeking refuge from the cold.
“They were searching for civilians as we always do,” Hoff said. “When without warning the roof collapsed, trapping four firefighters.”
Ankum and Stringer were killed. Their fellow firefighters dug them out. Seventeen others were injured.
Hoff took some questions about the roof collapse, and then came that last question. A TV reporter asked him to describe the bond firefighters have with each other. The reporter clearly wanted Hoff to emote for the cameras. But he declined to oblige with some teary speech.
“Right now, what I can talk about is that every firefighter that was there did the best they could to save their brothers,” Hoff said in clipped tones. “I can say our major concern right now is their families. That’s all I can tell you.”
His voice cracked just a bit there at the end and then he walked out, ending the news conference at the Fire Academy. He moved briskly down the hall. On the wall were several commemorative plaques.
One of the plaques he passed reads as follows:
“In memory of Battalion Chief Thomas A. Hoff, assistant drillmaster, who gave his life in performance of his duty at a 4-11 alarm from Station No. 1279, 14 February 1962.”
Bob Hoff, now fire commissioner, was 5 years old when his father, Tom, was killed in that fire on Valentine’s Day.
It happened at 70th Street and Dorchester Avenue, only a few blocks from Wednesday’s fire that took Ankum and Stringer.
The one that took Tom Hoff broke out in the basement of an apartment building. After the fire had been put out, Hoff and Chief Robert O’Brien were backing out toward a rear porch when the roof caved in, killing both men.
O’Brien was a boyhood friend of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, and the mayor broke down in tears upon hearing the news.
There is a Tribune photo taken in 1960, two years before Tom Hoff’s death. You can see Bob Hoff as a little boy standing next to his dad during an inspection at Soldier Field.
“I look at that every day, and it continues to drive me to serve as my motivation to be the best I can be,” Hoff told online photojournalist Alan Jacobs a few years ago.
On Wednesday, after the news conference, reporters and fire officials were still piecing together the narratives of the dead.
Ankum was in his second year with CFD, and had been a police officer before moving over to the Fire Department. Family members said Ankum believed police weren’t receiving proper respect on the streets of Chicago.
Stringer, a 12-year veteran, loved to ride his motorcycle out to a campground in Wilmington, a place where Chicago firefighters and cops decompress from the stress of their jobs.
The men died on the 100th anniversary of a fire in the old Union Stockyards that killed 21 firefighters.
Tom Ryan, president of Firefighters Union Local 2, was at the memorial for the stockyards fire Wednesday morning. His cell phone rang. The Rev. Tom Mulchrone, Fire Department chaplain, was calling to tell him what had happened.
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Ryan said. “To have this happen today of all days.”
Like others at that memorial, he rushed to the scene.
“They’re doing a job that they know is very dangerous,” Ryan said. “But they also know that job is very important, essential to our city, our neighborhoods and our homes.”
He was talking about public service without using the phrase “public service.” It’s a phrase often used by politicians to describe themselves. They spend a lifetime making deals and if they’ve made enough important people happy, somebody names a building after them.
But firefighters don’t make such deals. There is no compromise in their work. They go into burning buildings looking for the possibility that squatters might be there. They risk everything.
“That’s our job,” said Ryan. “That’s what we get paid to do. We’ll get through it, but it’s going to be difficult. We lost two of our brothers today.”
They lost two brothers. And Chicago lost two true public servants.