Three Firefighters Lost in Downtown Fire
FORTY YEARS AGO, ON FEBRUARY 23, 1973, three members of the Palatine, Illinois, Volunteer Fire Department lost their lives in a commercial fire in the town center. The FD was made up of about 30 members, many of whom were local businessmen and were widely known in their community. Around 5:45 am a passerby driving down Brockway St. on his way to work saw smoke coming from the Ben Franklin Five & Dime store, so he called the FD. The tone alerts were sent out to the members who all started out from their homes to the scene while the designated driver/operators responded to the firehouse for the equipment.
In an emotional recounting of the day of tragedy, the Daily Herald tells us in part:
Whenever a call came in, John usually would make a beeline next door to Assistant Chief Barney Langer's so they could drive directly to the fire while his dad went to the station to get a truck. But this was a Friday morning, and the 18-year-old was avoiding his dad, afraid he'd be ordered to school, and missed his ride.
Left to fend for himself, Tobin started his jog to the store. He quickly realized this would be a biggie.
"I'd never seen so much smoke in my life," said Tobin, now with the Elgin Fire Department and nearing the end of his 35-year career. "And then I heard those four outrigger plates clang on the ground, which told me they were setting up the Snorkel."
Daily Herald / John Tobin
The main floor was smokey but clear of flames. Firefighter John Wilson, 40, owned the store and figured the furnace was the likely culprit.
He led Richard "Dick" Freeman, 25, and Warren "Auggie" Ahlgrim, 32, through the building he knew so well. To access the basement, they had to make their way through the long, narrow structure to a set of interior stairs.
At one point, Wilson came upstairs and got another line from Tobin's dad, saying the fire was pretty much snuffed. That was the last time anyone saw him alive, as the fire, in fact, had spread.
Tobin and high school classmate Rick Cartwright both had their cameras at the scene and captured gut-wrenching shots of firefighter Howie Freeman working to put out the blaze, and later being held back from trying to rescue his son.
Crews eventually removed the bodies once the structure was safe enough to enter.
Daily Herald / Tobin
"We all stood there silently and respectfully while each of them were loaded into the ambulances," said Tobin, who recently wrote a book about the fire. "The whole town was affected. I know I've never been the same."
Most of the men made their way across the street to the Slade Street fire station to warm up. They were so devastated that the Arlington Heights Fire Department left an engine there to respond to Palatine's calls that night.
Daily Herald / Tobin
To this day, the townsfolk gather every February 23 for a remembrance and prayer at the Firefighters Memorial placed on the site of the fire at Brockway and Slade Streets. The current firefighters lead a procession preceding a wreath-laying and the memorial bell tribute.
Palatine Firefighters Memorial
There are more details and anecdotes in this story that tells of the emotional impact on the entire town. Read the full article HERE.
Former member and current Elgin firefighter John Tobin was at the fire and relates his experience in this brief video:
The Daily Herald also has a 14-image photo gallery HERE.
Palatine Fire Department WEBSITE.
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