Last Moments of Chicago Firefighter Recalled

Dec. 04--Fire Capt. Herbert Johnson, who always had a funny story to tell, who always had everyone's back, didn't fail his friends in the end.

After a probable flashover blistered his face and knocked him down in a burning house in Gage Park last year, his first actions were to see that his men got to safety. Everyone survived but him.

Johnson, 54, was hailed as a hero when he was buried with honors, but details of his last moments are just now coming to light following the conclusion of a federal investigation into the fatal fire on Nov. 2, 2012.

In a newly released report, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health cited poor communications, staffing shortages and inefficient coordination at the scene as "contributing factors" to the tragedy. And while investigators listed missteps by those battling the blaze from outside the building, they also provided details about the selflessness displayed inside.

According to the report, Johnson and another firefighter had been ordered to the second floor with a hose but could not see any flames as they walked down a hall and into a room.

In seconds, the two were hit by a wall of smoke and fire. "Something flashed over because the room was so crystal clear and it got so dark so quickly," recalled firefighter Mike Imparato, who was on the stairs behind Johnson when everything went suddenly black.

Imparato detailed his captain's final moments with the Tribune following the report's release. Though he declined to discuss the investigators' findings, he confirmed the harrowing scene detailed in the 28-page report.

"The heat came down on him really quick. The apartment was completely filled with smoke and was completely dark. I dropped to my knees to put my mask on," Imparato said, then he and another firefighter crawled into the room. "I screamed at Herbie. ... And then I just felt two bodies fall on top of me, right in front of me."

He heard one of them yell out, "We gotta get out of here! We gotta get out of here!" It was Johnson's "deep, brassy voice," Imparato said. Johnson yelled one more time -- "Get out!" -- then fell silent.

"He wasn't making a sound or moving," Imparato said. "I don't have a radio, so I'm screaming, 'mayday, mayday.' Ten seconds seemed like an eternity. I can hear footsteps on the stairs so I knew others were coming. I was screaming 'mayday' the entire time.

"When they finally got there, they asked, 'You have a victim?'" Imparato told them, "No, it's a fireman. It's Herbie."

As they pulled him down the stairs, someone started CPR because they couldn't feel a pulse. "But then I did feel a pulse and everybody just grabbed a limb and got him," Imparato said. "The paramedics were running toward us with the stretcher and we were running toward the stretcher with Herbie. We got him on there, and the medics put oxygen on him.

"He had third-degree burns but actually woke up and said, 'What happened?' I said, 'I don't know,' and we looked out the ambulance window and you can see flames shooting out of the house," Imparato said.

"I was just joking and said, 'I think we lost this one.' He might have chuckled. ... His hands and ears were burned pretty bad, and the inside of his mouth was charred. ... He was in pain but kind of on good terms. He knew he kinda made it out of there.

"He was actually joking around in the ER,'' Imparato said. "I told the nurse to get ready, and they told me to step out. At that time I was so confident he was going to be OK."

But his throat and lungs had been badly burned from air heated to 400 degrees from the flashover, and he died in the emergency room. "His throat started closing," Imparato said.

Johnson was a 32-year veteran of the department who had volunteered in 2001 to help with rescue 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 from a burning building on the South Side.

Imparato said he believes Johnson died a hero. "He wanted us all out of there,'' Imparato said. "He expected us to run out of there. ... I know he was trying to get us out, but he couldn't get himself out.''

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