Once the burning Ben Franklin five-and-dime store in downtown Palatine began to breathe in and out — the intensifying pressure preparing to blow out the windows and cave in the roof — that was the unmistakable sign for everyone to pull out.
But word quickly spread among the firemen that three of their brothers were unaware how dangerous the situation had grown.
Volunteer firefighters Warren Ahlgrim, Richard Freeman and John Wilson died in the Feb. 23, 1973, fire, their emptied air packs no match against a seemingly innocuous basement filled with few flames but plenty of carbon monoxide.
"Everyone wanted to save Johnny's store, and nobody realized what kind of danger they were in," former Palatine firefighter George Palmer said. "They were good at eating smoke, but had they not had their air packs, they probably would have come out sooner. It was the brave thing to do. But in retrospect, they shouldn't have gone in."
Their deaths, which forever changed a community and highlighted the need for more modern equipment and tactics, are being remembered 40 years later by a department that refuses to forget past tragedies if it means keeping today's members safe.
Everyone in Palatine knew the Ben Franklin variety store.
Located in the heart of the quaint but expanding downtown district, that was the spot where kids with modest allowances could comb through long shelves stuffed with candy, baseballs and model airplanes.
Most mornings, before the sun came up, welding shop owner Charlie Altman would drive past the Brockway Street staple after grabbing breakfast at a local diner. It was about 5:45 a.m. Feb. 23 when Altman noticed smoke wafting from the building. He called the fire department, which began the usual round of calls to its firefighters, most of whom were still home in bed.
Among them was David Tobin, who lived about a mile away and counted himself among the 30 or so volunteers who made up almost the entire department.
Just as eager to respond was son John Tobin, who, despite being a senior at Palatine High School, was as much a mainstay at those fires as the men charged with extinguishing them. He had grown up with the department and for the past few years had taken photos, cleaned up debris and helped with the hoses, occasionally suiting up alongside the men he idolized.
Whenever a call came in, John usually would make a beeline next door to Assistant Chief Barney Langer's so they could drive directly to the fire while his dad went to the station to get a truck. But this was a Friday morning, and the 18-year-old was avoiding his dad, afraid he'd be ordered to school, and missed his ride.
Tobin started to jog to the store. He quickly realized this would be a biggie.
"I'd never seen so much smoke in my life," said Tobin, now with the Elgin Fire Department and nearing the end of his 35-year career. "And then I heard those four outrigger plates clang on the ground, which told me they were setting up the Snorkel."
Running out of air
The Snorkel was the department's big ladder truck. Often at its helm was Palmer, who remembers that morning as if it was yesterday.
At 42, Palmer was beyond the age cutoff to apply for a full-time gig with Palatine, which was slowly moving away from a volunteer department as ambulance runs became a key part of the fire service and the volume of calls started to skyrocket.
Palmer operated the Snorkel at the Ben Franklin fire, giving crews a bird's-eye view of the blaze.
It seemed manageable at first.
The main floor was smokey but clear of flames. Firefighter John Wilson, 40, owned the store and figured the furnace was the likely culprit.
He led Richard "Dick" Freeman, 25, and Warren "Auggie" Ahlgrim, 32, through the building he knew so well. To access the basement, they had to make their way through the long, narrow structure to a set of interior stairs.
Each man was equipped with an air pack. Based on the atmosphere, lung capacity and exertion, their oxygen might last anywhere from about 10 to 20 minutes.