Oliver: Chicago firefighter's death reignites worry

Sometimes we forget just how dangerous some jobs can be.

Then again, sometimes that “forgetfulness” is a conscious decision, one meant to stave off incessant worry.

As the wife of a former firefighter, I couldn’t have been the only spouse who chose to minimize the danger of the job held by my other half. No doubt the spouses of police officers and military members do it, too.

My husband often would tell me how much fire training he had gone through.

When he was a member of the ice-diving team, which made me nervous, he would remind me even more.

I still go through a mental checklist each time a firefighter is injured or, worse, killed.

How likely is this incident to take place here?

In the case of the Sept. 11 attacks, the answer was “not likely.” McHenry County isn’t high on the list of places that would be the target of a terrorist attack, nor do we have skyscrapers.

Still, it didn’t stop me from weeping openly at the overwhelming loss of so many of my husband’s “brothers.”

Another question: Is this type of building one that we have here?

Chicago firefighters Edward Stringer and Corey Ankum died Dec. 22, 2011, fighting a blaze in an unoccupied, one-story building.

That building had a bowstring truss roof, which under normal circumstances is safe but is prone to collapse in fires.

In McHenry alone, there are more than a dozen buildings with that kind of roof. Of course, the fire department knows where they are, so firefighters can plan accordingly.

Still, it can make it harder for me to “forget” the possibility that a firefighter might be injured.

In other instances, I reflect on whether the fallen firefighter was new on the job or not following procedures. This, too, can play a role in how dangerous the job can be.

However, the death of Chicago firefighter Herbert “Herbie” Johnson on Nov. 2 is a painful reminder that sometimes none of that matters.

Johnson was a captain and 32-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department.

No doubt he had seen all kinds of fires over the years and had countless hours of training.

He was good at what he did and beloved by his fellow firefighters. He even worked with some of our area firefighters.

The house fire he responded to in the Gage Park neighborhood was routine. Officials believe that it might have started with a faulty water heater.

Yet, he was caught in an apparent flashover – an explosion of flames – that caused him to go into cardiac arrest, according to news accounts.

This time, it really could happen here. At any time.

My heart goes out to the family, as it does each and every time a firefighter is injured or killed.

Yet, this time, my sorrow is punctuated by a heavy dose of worry for our area firefighters.

Please be safe. Train hard. And please don’t ever forget the danger of what you do.

Some of us can’t either, no matter how hard we try.

• Joan Oliver is the assistant news editor for the Northwest Herald. She can be reached at 815-526-4552 or by email at

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