Christopher Wheatley was doing what firefighters do -- climbing a ladder, weighed down with gear, moving toward smoke instead of away -- when he slipped and fell 35 feet to his death.
It was a gut shot to the Chicago Fire Department, the first time in more than a decade a firefighter has died battling a blaze. And when Ambulance 15 carried Wheatley's body to the morgue early Monday, dozens of fire vehicles and police cars lined the streets, their lights flashing as officers along the route silently saluted.
"It's hard to put into words. I'm still digesting it," said Dan Zeller, who works out of a firehouse across the street from Wheatley's West Side condominium. "He's one of us. It couldn't hit any closer to home."
Shortly after midnight, Wheatley and other firefighters had responded to a grease-chute fire at Avec restaurant on Randolph Street in the West Loop. He was climbing the building's fire-escape ladder carrying an air tank, a water pump that weighed more than 40 pounds and a tool used to pry open doors.
"They had to go up to the roof to open the area where the grease chute extended through," said fire Commissioner Robert Hoff, his voice wavering with emotion. "Firefighter Christopher Wheatley was making his way up to the roof on a ladder that was attached to the building, carrying his equipment. Apparently he slipped and fell to the ground, causing critical injuries. They worked to save his life, but it was too late."
Wheatley, 31, was taken to Stroger Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 1:19 a.m.
Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said damage to the restaurant was minimal. Early indications are that Wheatley lost his footing on the fire escape's ladder, Langford said, but fire officials will fully review the incident Tuesday. An Avec representative could not be reached.
Friends and fellow firefighters said Wheatley's dream was to be a firefighter, a dream he achieved in 2008 after eight years as a paramedic in Romeoville and Chicago.
"He was young, he was strong, he was aggressive," said firefighter Brian Reese. "We're going to miss his strength, his enthusiasm. The way he brought a smile to the firehouse will be missed."
Wheatley's family members declined to comment.
The last Chicago firefighter to die on duty was William Grant, who was killed in 2007 en route to a call when the fire engine he was in collided with a bus and flipped over. The last time Chicago firefighters died while battling a fire was February 1998, when Patrick King and Anthony Lockhart were killed while trying to stop a blaze in a Beverly tire store.
The rarity of such deaths made it even harder for firefighters who knew Wheatley to make sense of the tragedy.
"It's not going to be easy," said firefighter Scott Buckley, who worked with Wheatley. "He'll always be part of our team. ... He'll never be replaced."
Zeller recalled the times he would relieve Wheatley of duty at the firehouse, getting information about the previous watch, then laughing and joking about Wheatley's favorite topic, the Chicago Bears. Wheatley was a big sports fan and a Bears season-ticket holder. His page features a picture of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler with the word "Hope" underneath.
Zeller said he and Wheatley hit it off because both were paramedics who "crossed over" to become firefighters.
"He did his best at it, and it was a real tragedy and it could happen to any one of us," Zeller said. "You never want to go home without a guy in the rig."
At the Lawndale fire station where Wheatley worked for several years as a paramedic, Kevin McDermott said the fallen firefighter showed him the ropes while both were attending the fire academy. McDermott said Wheatley distinguished himself as a joker and a "full-of-life kind of guy" who snapped back to work whenever the bell rang.
"The academy is pretty serious, but when we had a little break, he had a little joke or two to lighten the mood," McDermott said. "He was almost goofy in a good way. But when it came to work at drills, he was serious."