Being a cop brings you to the scene of fires from time to time, mostly for traffic control which can be supremely boring at best, or cold and wet at worst. Worse even than that however, are those rare instances when you arrive at the scene of a fire before the fire department. If it is an occupied residential building, it is incumbent upon you to initiate some sort of rescue attempt until the pros arrive.
Now I’ve never pretended to understand the science of firefighting anymore than firefighters understand the mechanics of running into a building where there have been gunshots fired. Fires are probably more complicated than men with guns. Police officers and firefighters are different animals with different training and comfort levels in the scenarios where they have chosen to make their livelihood. Many police officers, to be sure, have received accolades and official lifesaving awards for rescuing people from burning buildings. Me? While I have succeeded in rescuing perhaps as many as two dozen people from burning buildings during my career, I have received nothing but reprimands—both written and oral—as well as causing myself great discomfort and scaring myself half to death. I hate fires.
It was March 29th, 1968, a brisk early spring day. My partner Tony and I were working days in the 18th District. When we climbed into our beat car at 8:30 AM, it was sunny with a temperature just easing out of the forties. The sun warmed the car rapidly so we hung our jackets on the hooks in the rear seat. Because we anticipated wearing our jackets whenever we left the car, we turned the cuffs on our fresh long sleeve shirts under one time. If the day wasn’t too messy, the cuffs would remain clean and we could get one more day of wear before laundering the shirt.
We took a few radio assignments, dutifully donning and buttoning our jackets each time we left the vehicle.
At about noon, the chatter on our radio picked up as the 1st District began to mobilize traffic control beat cars and foot posts for a department store fire on State Street. Wieboldt’s and Montgomery Ward reported fires, very quickly followed by Carson’s. Three simultaneous fires within a two block area quickly became a major incident as fire equipment sped into the loop from all directions. But outside of seeing fire equipment stream south through our district en route to the loop, units from our district were not affected. That is until the dispatcher paged our car.
“1822, take the fire at 636 North State—fire is not on the scene.” That was bothersome. Normally the phraseology would have been “…fire is en route.”
Tony caught the subtle alteration in semantics and looked at me, “Of course they’re not en route—they’re all downtown!” We knew our Fire Department was amog the finest in the country but common sense told us at this moment in time we would be on our own at whatever we found on State Street.
We were only a few blocks away and in moments we were at the fire. A street level restaurant was burning but the waiters, cooks and customers were standing on the sidewalk. An adjacent stairway led to apartments on the second and third floors immediately above the storefront. We parked the squad several doors away to avoid obstructing the fire equipment and we dashed from the car. As we approached the stairs, panicked people coming down called to us.
“There’s still people up there!”
Tony and I ran up the stairs and began pounding on doors. There was smoke in the stairwell, but things were tolerable. We led several people down to the safety of the sidewalk.
“Mr. Lee! Mr. Lee! He’s till up there. Third floor rear, he works nights… he must be sleeping.”
Tony and I headed up the stairs for the second time and on the third floor we pounded on the rear apartment door and screamed the best we could in the ever increasing smoke. Mr. Lee finally opened the door, a small Asian man, still sleepy eyed. In seconds we had him safely out on the sidewalk in front of the burning building.
And then we did something incredibly stupid.
A hysterical woman approached us.
“My puppies, my puppies!” she screamed. “They’re on the third floor front, in a box in the living room.”
“What kind of box? Exactly where is it?”
“It’s just a cardboard box on the floor in the living room.” Tony and I headed to the stairwell for our third trip.
“And my parakeet!” she yelled as we disappeared into the smoke.
As we passed the second floor landing we could hear snapping and popping from the front apartment. The smoke was rapidly becoming extremely uncomfortable. No fire units were yet on the scene. In the third floor apartment we quickly located the tiny puppies and the parakeet. We headed downstairs, Tony carrying the box of puppies and me following with the bird. Somehow, even then, I realized the image of a cop fleeing a burning building with a birdcage was not exactly heroic. I should have grabbed the puppies.
When we reached the second floor landing things were not good. Smoke and heat were streaming up towards us and the crackling sound was even louder than before. The only comfort was the sound of the first fire unit finally arriving out on the street. As we headed down the last flight of stairs, a portion of the stairwell wall broke away, tumbling into the restaurant which was now a raging inferno. We had no choice but to make a dash for it. Two seconds later we were on the street turning the parakeet and puppies over to a woman who was now sobbing uncontrollably.
The only good thing about our third trip out of the building was that there was no media present to snap a picture of the dramatic bird cage rescue. The news types were all downtown covering the trio of department store arsons that ultimately caused over twenty million dollars in damage.
As we coughed and blew the black soot out of our noses I glanced across the street and saw our District Commander standing quietly in civilian clothes. I gave a quick report to the Battalion Chief, telling him I thought we had everyone out of the building, A hose was in position but not yet charged and a ladder company was moving their unit into position in front of the building and firefighters were preparing to climb up to the roof. We could feel the intense heat from the middle of the street. Tony and I walked to the far curb to catch our breath, calm down and watch from a safe distance. Our Commander had left the scene.
Several minutes later our field sergeant approached us.
“Hey guys, go into the station and report to the Watch Commander.” He would want a written report no doubt, to give him background to initiate a department life saving award.
Once in the Watch Commander’s office we immediately noticed the pink form-sets on his desk. SPAR forms. Summary Punishment Action Reports.
“The Commander wants you two disciplined.”
“For what?” we asked incredulously.
“Your sleeves were rolled up.”
“Oh for chrissake,” I said. “Let us talk to him. We just rescued a whole shitload of people from a burning building.”
“Were your sleeves rolled up?”
“Well, turned under once,” I said looking down at my sleeves now smudged with soot.
“Then you better not talk to him… he saw you and he is really pissed. Just sign the SPAR for a written reprimand and it’s over with. Don’t make it any worse by challenging him.”
“Probably saw me with the goddam parakeet,” I muttered
It was our first formal department discipline. Did I mention how much I hate fires?
• • •
Several years later and a promotion to detective found me working out of Maxwell Street Homicide. Homicide detectives don’t get assigned to traffic control at fires but there were occasions where we found it necessary to visit fire buildings after the fact to investigate deaths by arson. I found that far preferable to actually being inside burning buildings.
It was a cold February night around 2 AM as Mike and I headed back to the Maxwell Street Headquarters to catch up on some typing. As we were northbound on Morgan, approaching our office from the south, we saw flames in the first floor apartment just three doors south of our building.
“7407 emergency,” we paged the City-Wide Two dispatcher.
“All units standby, 7407 go with your emergency.”
“Yeah, squad, we have a residential three story building fire at 1341 South Morgan, looks to be occupied, fire’s not on the scene—we’re going in.”
We jumped from our unmarked squad without waiting for a response.
As Yogi Berra would say, “It was déjà vu all over again.”
We dashed up the five or six steps to the vestibule door which was locked. We each carried an expired credit card in our front pocket but Mike was first with his. He jimmied the latch in about 10 seconds, 10 precious seconds. Once inside the hallway we felt the door to the first floor front apartment. Hot! We hesitated just long enough to hear a distant siren, probably from the fire station at 1123 West Roosevelt. Leave this door for the pros, we thought as we started pounding on the other doors, gradually working our way up the stairs to the third floor.
Sleepy people started appearing. The smoke this time was worse and only intensified as we reached the top floor. As soon as we satisfied ourselves of a response from each apartment, we turned to head back down the stairs into the ominous heat and black billowing smoke roiling up from the first floor. Things had deteriorated rapidly and now Mike and I had serious doubts about our ability to get ourselves out of the building safely. What to do? Well… if you’re paying attention, the Lord sends angels in many forms.
“Office!” screamed a heavyset black lady. “Ya’ all come through here,” she said as she motioned to her third floor apartment. “We be goin’ out the back way!”
Well… that’s probably covered at the Fire Academy in Basic Firefighting 101; you do not have to exit the same way you came in, but I never had that course at the Police Academy.
As we went through her apartment, the air became cooler and less smoky and when we got to the back porch, the crisp, cold air was positively refreshing. We made our way, coughing heavily, down and to the front of the building as the Fire Department was charging their first line.
“Are you guys the coppers who went in?” yelled a fireman.
We nodded, still coughing, unable to speak.
“Lieu! The cops are accounted for!” he called over his shoulder.
The Fire Lieutenant was heading into the building as we walked over to the Battalion Chief who was being briefed by another fireman.
“Hey,” my voice was surprisingly raspy and I spoke between coughs. “We didn’t get into the first floor front.”
“We’re in there now,” said the Chief. “Damned space heaters!”
Our car was blocked by fire equipment so Mike and I walked around the corner and up the long flight of stairs to our office on the second floor. At the top of the stairs was the men’s room. We stopped and splashed our sooty faces with cold water and blew an unbelievable amount of black out our noses before we headed back to the homicide office.
“You guys are in deep shit now,” announced our cantankerous and paranoid midnight sergeant.
“How’s that?” we asked with genuine surprise.
“I don’t know what you’re up to, but the First Deputy’s Office just called and asked for the name and star numbers of the detectives on 7407. I’m tellin’ ya, whatever ya done, you’re both in shit now. I gave them your name and star numbers… and I’m not covering for you!”
“Sarge, we just got a dozen people out of a burning building down the block. Downtown will probably be expecting a report from you nominating us for a lifesaving award.”
“That’s all bullshit. I’m not covering for you no matter what you did!” he sputtered. He was turning beet red and we thought he might stroke out so we found typewriters as far from his office as we could and started typing up some old cases.
The incident would rate a line or two on the 24 hour report for the department brass, but without any further input from our supervisors it would die there. Our sergeant would spend the rest of the early morning hours locked in his world of paranoia muttering about the trouble we were facing.
Did I mention to you? I hate fires.
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