Capt. Herbie Johnson
Capt. Herbie Johnson
Photo credit: Chicago Fire Department
Capt. Herbie Johnson, left, is shown at a promotion ceremony this summer with Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago.
Photo credit: Chicago Fire Department
Chicago fire investigators are considering the possibility that a malfunctioning water heater sparked the fire that killed Capt. Herbert Johnson, a Fire Department spokesman said Saturday.
As city engineers analyzed the unit that was in the attic of a multifamily home on the South Side, Johnson's body was transferred in an emotional procession to a Chicago Ridge funeral home, where a somber crowd of about 100 friends and family had gathered.
Some drove three hours from Wisconsin. Many saluted Johnson as the procession passed, and others wept while fire department truck ladders stretched into the cold and cloudy sky in tribute.
"He was always a hero to us; now he's a hero for our city," said Dan McMahon, Johnson's brother-in-law, standing with Johnson's wife, Susan, and other family members before the 17-mile procession began.
Johnson, 54, led the charge Friday night into a burning building in the 2300 block of West 50th Place that was about a block away from his Gage Park firehouse.
He was found in the attic, where, Fire Department officials said, Johnson was apparently caught in a "flashover" burst of flames that damaged his airways and sent him into cardiac arrest. He died after paramedics carried him out and tried to resuscitate him. The Cook County medical examiner's office ruled the cause of death as inhalation injuries suffered in a fire.
Another firefighter, Brian Woods, was also injured in the fire, but was treated and released from Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.
Johnson's influence on everyone he met was visible Saturday, with shrines at the site of his death and trees in his family's Morgan Park neighborhood decorated with purple and black bows.
A 32-year veteran of the department, Johnson volunteered in 2001 to help with rescue efforts in New York after the 9/11 attacks. As a lieutenant in 2007, he received a Medal of Honor for outstanding bravery or heroism, the state's highest accolade for firefighters -- the result, his family said, of helping rescue children the year before from a burning building on the South Side.
Friends and family remembered him mostly for his jovial personality and tender heart, a burly man with a beaming smile who once took a sewing class so he could make a First Communion dress for his daughter.
Johnson and his sister, Julie, even went to clown school together, said their brother John Johnson, a Chicago police officer. That sister, a former police officer who is now a nurse, celebrated her birthday Friday, the day of Johnson's death, family members said.
Their father worked for the city in the Streets and Sanitation Department, John Johnson said, and their grandfathers were Chicago police officers.
The eldest of eight children, Johnson always knew he wanted to be a firefighter, said his family members, many of whom are also in public service.
"He lived for it," brother-in-law McMahon, said.
"He died for it," John Johnson added.
He grew up in the St. Basil Catholic parish neighborhood near 56th and Wood streets, and attended nearby St. Rita of Cascia High School, his family said.
As a firefighter, Johnson was widely known in the department, his jovial demeanor and commitment to work winning him scores of fans.
"Just like every little boy that's grown up in the last 20 years wanted to be Michael Jordan or Brian Urlacher, every firefighter that worked with him wanted to be Herbie," said Tim O'Brien, a spokesman with Chicago Fire Fighters Union Local 2. "You aspired to be more like him in every way of life."
Colleagues said Johnson spent the last several years working as an instructor at the Fire Academy. Generous and kind, he never missed a Fire Department fundraising event, they said. His helpful nature also extended beyond the firehouse, friends said, through coaching youth sports and volunteering at his church parish.
He always had a funny story and often left fellow firefighters in stitches, sometimes through his own distinctive belly laugh, colleagues said.
"He said he wanted to make a million people laugh," said Kevin McKendry, 29, whose father was a close friend of Johnson's. "He surpassed that a long time ago, though. He probably made like 10 million people laugh."
He also enjoyed being the subject of playful jostling. Once, firefighter candidates made photocopies of Johnson's face and glued them on paint sticks, engineer Mike Cummings said. For roll call, they put the photos up to their faces so they could all be Herbie Johnson that day.
"Anybody that worked with him had a little bit of Herbie in them," said Cummings, who works at Engine 123.
That was also the feeling outside the building at 2315 W. 50th Place, where Johnson lost his life. There, some firefighters stood vigil in the morning while neighbors traded stories of watching the hard-charging firefighter run first toward the roaring flames.
The building, a single-family home that had been converted into a multiunit dwelling, had been cited in the past for code violations, including a faulty roof and dilapidated gutters, city building department records show.
Mario Soriano, the building owner, said those problems and others were corrected in April.
Soriano said during a telephone interview that he didn't know how the fire started. He said he got a call about the blaze and knew a firefighter had died putting it out.
"I'm so sorry what happened," he said. "I don't know what happened. It was really bad."
"We never had problems before," Soriano added.
Julie Grysztar, 27, who lived next door to the burned home, recalled watching Johnson run inside.
Grysztar said she later saw firefighters bringing Johnson out of the building and hustling a gurney to the front of the house. Before they put him in the ambulance, Grysztar said, she saw something else that told her someone really important had died.
Each firefighter on the scene, she said, kissed Johnson on the forehead.
Johnson is survived by his wife of 28 years, Susan, and their three children, Tommy, Laurie and Mickey.
Johnson's wake is scheduled for Wednesday at Curley Funeral Home, 6166 W. 111th St., , followed by the funeral Thursday at St. Rita, 6243 S. Fairfield Ave.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service