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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On A National Note...

Please keep these families in your thoughts and prayers during this difficult time. Many thanks to our wonderful Fire Department for putting their lives on the line each and every day for our Milton Citizens.

Ex-cop among 2 firefighters killed in blaze.

By KIM JANSSEN, JAMES SCALZITTI, TINA SFONDELES AND KARA SPAK; Chicago Sun Times

Chicago’s worst firefighter tragedy in more than a decade claimed the lives of two firefighters Wednesday morning when the roof of an abandoned building with a history of code violations collapsed on top of them.

Edward Stringer, a 12-year veteran, and Corey Ankum, a former cop who’d joined the fire department little more than a year ago, were both fighting a fire inside the former

Sing Way Laundry at 1744 E. 75th Street, when the roof collapsed and trapped them and two other surviving firefighters. Fifteen other firefighters were injured in the 7 a.m. blaze, which broke out on the 100th anniversary of the 1910 Union Stockyards fire, the single greatest loss of big-city U.S. firefighters until the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

The roof collapsed “without warning” as Stringer and Ankum searched the smoke-filled building for vagrants, Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff said.

Hoff — a third-generation firefighter whose own father was killed in the line of duty — was among the nearly 100 firefighters who responded to a Mayday call for the trapped men and furiously dug through the rubble in a desperate effort to rescue them.

Still covered in soot from the scene, he later refused to second-guess the decision to enter the one-story building, saying the firefighters followed proper procedure and were doing their jobs checking for vagrants who might have taken refuge there.

“We take no building as being vacant,” he said, as firefighters across the city mourned, “We do it cautiously but we go in and search for people that have tried to get out of the cold.”

The laundry had been abandoned for at least six years, had a “sagging roof” and an ongoing problem with squatters who might have started the blaze to keep warm, according to Robert Smart, who owns a car wash next-door.

The laundry’s owner, Chuck Dai, was sued by the city at least three times since 1987. The building was in foreclosure and was cited for 14 code violations in 2007, including citations that noted Dai’s failure to “maintain the roof in sound condition and repair” and to “maintain the building ... in a structurally safe and stable condition,” documents show.

Dai, who did not respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday, could now be sued or fined for failing to meet the terms of a consent decree signed last year that required him to sell the property or fix the problems by last month, according to city Building Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey.

For Stringer and Ankum’s anguished comrades, those were questions for another day.

Dozens of firefighters fought back tears as they lined the exit at Christ Medical Center’s emergency room to salute as the body of Ankum, 34, was brought out to be taken to the morgue. A near identical scene played out at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office after the remains of Stringer, 47, were brought from Northwestern Hospital in a dignified police and fire department convoy.

“We are all devastated,’’ said a fire department district commander, who was walking out of the medical examiner’s office carrying a Chicago flag that had been used to drape the remains of both firefighters and a red plastic bag filled with Stringer’s clothing.

Both Ankum, who worked out of the firehouse at 79th and South Chicago, and Stringer, who worked out of the firehouse at 63rd and Dorchester, were remembered for their courage, generosity and humor. Both men died of blunt trauma from falling timbers and debris, officials said.

“The brotherhood and camaraderie these firefighters share is incredible,” said Maurice Matthews, whose brother, firefighter Steven Ellerson, was injured trying to save Ankum.

Ellerson was inside the building when the roof collapsed, Matthews said. He heard Ankum’s cries for help, saw he was struggling to breathe and “took off his mask to give him some oxygen,” Matthews added.

But Ankum was trapped and couldn’t be freed, and Ellerson, whose eyesight was damaged in the ordeal, had to be removed by his fellow firefighters.

“He almost died trying to save his partner,” Matthews said, sobbing. “He’s distraught that he couldn’t save him.”

Ellerson remained at Christ hospital in good condition Wednesday evening, while an acting lieutenant who was also inside the building was in stable condition at Northwestern Hospital, officials said. Fifteen other firefighters — including some who were on the roof when it collapsed, suffered lesser injuries, fire department spokesman Larry Langford said.

The blaze, in a rear office at the building, had been contained when the firefighters entered the building to check for casualties, Hoff said. The age of the building and the weight of snow and ice on the roof may have contributed to the collapse, he said. A door at the rear of the property, perhaps used by the squatters, was open when firefighters arrived.

The tragedy is the worst single incident to befall Chicago firefighters since the 1998 deaths of Patrick King and Anthony Lockhart, who were also killed in a roof collapse. It prompted Mayor Daley, who employed Ankum’s wife as a personal secretary, to cut short a trip to New York and return to Chicago Wednesday night.

“I knew Corey Ankum and his family and I share in their loss today,’’ Daley said in a statement. “The deaths of Firefighters Stringer and Ankum are both a sad reminder of how much gratitude we owe our first responders and a tragedy for all Chicagoans.”

Those words were echoed by Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 president Tom Ryan, who was attending a ceremony to commemorate the 21 firefighters killed in the 1910 stockyard blaze when he got a call about Wednesday’s tragedy.

“No matter how prepared you are, no matter how much experience you have, a morning like this is something that takes you by surprise,” he said.

“There are families out there in our ranks whose lives will be changed forever, but they can take solace from knowing that their husbands, their fathers, their brothers are heroes, and their extended firefighter family will be with them as long as they need us.”

Retired firefighter Bill Cosgrove was among those marking the anniversary of the Union Stockyards fire with a gathering at the firefighters monument in the small park at Exchange and Peoria. The names of the firefighters who died a century ago were being read, a bell tolling for each one, he said.

“It was beyond disbelief,” Cosgrove, who lives in Tinley Park, said of the timing of Wednesday’s fire. “It broke most of the firemen down when we found out. We have a very sad day today.”

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