CFL News
September 26, 2011

Remembering fallen heroes

A painful year had passed since Chicago firefighters and their families last gathered at Rosehill Cemetery to honor fallen colleagues and loved ones below the wailing buzz of bagpipes and the tolls of a bell.

Source: Chicago Tribune

By Dan Hinkel

A painful year had passed since Chicago firefighters and their families last gathered at Rosehill Cemetery to honor fallen colleagues and loved ones below the wailing buzz of bagpipes and the tolls of a bell.

For the first time since 1998, the department had lost multiple firefighters in battle with a blaze. A federal report the Tribune brought to light Friday faulted the department for alleged communication and radio equipment problems that contributed to the deaths of Corey Ankum and Edward Stringer after a roof collapsed in a burning South Side building in December.

Ankum and Stringer were focal points of Sunday's rain-drenched memorial beneath the towering monument to their calling, though the ceremony focused entirely on service and sacrifice, rather than blame.

"It's very easy to Monday morning quarterback. I will not second-guess my men and women, ever," said Thomas Ryan, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, after the service. "Even when you do everything right, bad things happen."

Jenn Stringer said she hadn't digested the report on her father's death, and she said Sunday's ceremony was a bittersweet mix of a memorial and a gathering with her "second family."

She grew up around firefighters, she said, rattling off the firehouse nicknames applied to her father, from the charming to the unprintable. Stringer, 23, of Chicago, is studying in hopes of following her father into the department as a paramedic. His death, she said, steeled her resolve to work around firehouses.

"It just feels like home when I'm there," Stringer said.

Rain pelted the round-topped caps of firefighters in dress blues at the 29th annual service at the North Side cemetery. Beneath a U.S. flag draped between two outstretched firetruck ladders, fire officials read the names of 84 union members who had died since the last ceremony, including three counted as having perished in the line of duty: Ankum, Stringer and Patrick Hannon, a 51-year-old lieutenant who died, apparently of natural causes, in a Near West Side firehouse in January.

While young children laughed and fidgeted, graying men clenched their faces, attempting to stifle tears, as pipers played "Amazing Grace."

Department officials spoke of the fear, pride and courage of firefighters and their families before Local 2 spokesman Timothy O'Brien tolled the bell in a pattern symbolizing the signal used to summon firefighters back to the station.

"This Fire Department family will never forget those who have gone to rest," said the Rev. Tom Mulcrone, the department's chaplain.

The ceremony occurred a day before what would have been Corey Ankum's 35th birthday, said his sister, Carol. His family is grieving "one day at a time," she said, adding that the ceremony allowed his family to express publicly the pain that haunts them privately.

"It helps to see other people out here that love you," she said.

Speaking of the "terrible tragedy" that took Ankum and Stringer, 47, on Dec. 22, 2010, O'Brien, the union spokesman, said after the ceremony that he expected department leaders to take the recent report "very seriously" and make changes if needed.

The report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health — called "very disturbing" last week by Stringer's mother, Joyce Lopez — knocked the department for alleged communication and equipment problems. Among other issues cited, the report noted that few of the firefighters who rushed into the dilapidated former laundry building in the 1700 block of East 75th Street were armed with radios. While officials said some of the report's recommendations had been adopted, the department isn't scheduled to put radios in the hands of every firefighter until 2012.

The deadly fire illustrated the danger firefighters face every day, said Ryan, the union head, surrounded by department members and their families eating lunch at a post-ceremony reception in the garage of a firehouse near the cemetery.

"It can go from nothing to catastrophic instantly," he said.