Mourners Gather in Honor of Fallen Chicago Firefighter

On a brisk Wednesday evening, under a huge American flag hoisted by two ladder trucks, hundreds of firefighters lined up in front of St. Rita of Cascia Shrine Chapel to say goodbye to their fallen colleague, Herbert "Herbie" Johnson.

Dressed in their uniforms, the firefighters -- some who knew Johnson and some who didn't -- stood outside for nearly an hour before slowly walking into the Southwest Side church. As the solemn procession played out, hundreds of other mourners silently looked on.

"Anybody who does our job, we have a mutual respect and connection with," Barrington firefighter Kyle Racina, who never met Johnson, said as he stood outside the visitation. "He made the ultimate sacrifice for the job."

Johnson, 54, a captain and 32-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department, was killed in the line of duty Friday while fighting a fire in a Gage Park home. The investigation into what caused the fire is ongoing, though fire officials have said they believe a faulty water heater may have started the blaze.

As the visitation continued through the afternoon and into the evening, a steady stream of mourners waited in a line that sometimes stretched into the parking lot of the Catholic church at 7740 S. Western Ave. Cars, including police vehicles and firetrucks from all over the Chicago region, packed the neighboring streets, which were backed up with traffic for hours.

Johnson's brother, Ted, who also is a Chicago firefighter, said the tragedy still seems surreal. His family is struggling to deal with the loss but grateful for the outpouring of support from across the country, he said.

"Tomorrow, I'm going to have to carry my brother's body to his grave," Johnson said. "But I'm going to have over 4,000 brothers and sisters right there with me."

A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Thursday at the same church.

Inside the chapel Wednesday, a line weaved in and out of the aisles as people chatted, cried and reminisced about Johnson and his large, tightknit family.

Pat Popek laughed as she recalled the time Johnson sported his grammar school basketball jersey at their 25th eighth-grade reunion.

"Believe me, it didn't fit him very well," she said with a smile. "But that was his personality."

A display of photos of Johnson -- posing with his touch football team, spending time with his brothers and sisters, and marrying wife Susan -- stood beside flowers arranged as firetrucks, footballs and a shamrock.

Johnson's widow greeted well-wishers as she stood next to the dark wooden casket containing the body of her husband, decked out in his dress uniform with a golden cross beside him. A medal for his heroism in the Fire Department also lay in the casket, which was adorned with pink roses.

"He would want us to celebrate his life, not his death," remarked Johnson's 18-year-old nephew, Thaddeus.

The eldest of eight, Johnson was always the leader in his family growing up, making sure his siblings did their homework and chores and stayed out of harm's way, said family friend John Jurcev, 78.

He enjoyed entertaining those around him and could find the good in a sad situation. Often, he spread his happiness with giant bearhugs, sometimes not realizing his own strength, Jurcev joked.

"He would be crushin' me, but I loved it," he said.

Relatives said they have received cards from schoolchildren from across Chicago. Some were on display inside the chapel.

Many of the notes offered prayers and support. That has meant a lot to Johnson's widow and three children, said Dan McMahon, Johnson's brother-in-law.

"They've helped their spirits get through this tragedy," he said.

Ted Johnson called his brother a great example for the city. It's a risk when firefighters leave for work every day, never knowing if they'll see their families again, he said.

"Tomorrow we'll bring him home," his brother said. "It's a great send-off for a true hero."

Copyright 2012 - Chicago Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service