|The body of Captain Nicholas Schmidt is removed from the wreckage|
of the Reliance Hotel (HistoricImages.com)
It was on this date, December 17, in 1954 that the Chicago Fire Department suffered through another tragic day when over one hundred men responded to a 3-11 alarm fire at a sway-backed hotel, the Reliance, at 1702 West Madison Street.
The wind was out of the west at ten to fifteen miles per hour, and the temperature stood right around ten degrees as over two-dozen firemen searched the second floor’s 17 rooms and the third floor’s 28 rooms. Five men were on the roof of the structure when a portion of the building collapsed. The men on the roof rode the debris down into the building; those on the second and third floors were trapped in the wreckage.
Some men were able to free themselves as frantic firefighters worked most of the day in frigid temperatures to free those who were trapped in the debris. Four doctors, three from the Presbyterian Hospital and Dr. Herman H. Bundesen, president of the Board of Health, went into the debris to attend to trapped men as they awaited rescue.
Finally, after more than six hours as another wall tilted precariously over the rescue effort and hope dwindled, Assistant Fire Commissioner Anthony J. Mullaney ordered all of his men to leave the wreckage and a crane was brought in to search for two firemen who remained missing. Shortly after the order a portion of the third floor tumbled into the basement.
One of the missingg men was George Malik, a 37-year-old acting lieutenant. “They put the crane in – our hope is gone,” his wife cried softly. “That means all our hope is gone.” [Chicago Tribune, December 18, 1953]
The survivors’ stories were harrowing. A lieutenant with Squad 2, Alvin Joslin, said, “We had no warning. The wall just let go. I was lucky. I was pinned under a door and it shielded me.”
Fireman Arthur Carlson of Engine 31 said he could feel rescuers walking on the debris that entrapped him. “They dug me out after we had been in there three or four hours. It seemed forever.”
“It was like I was in a cast,” fireman Raymond Nowicki of Engine 107 said. “I could only see down, so I just had to stay put and pray.
Over eight hours had passed before the last fireman’s body was found.
One resident at the hotel, John Tybor, died in the fire.
Five firefighters lost their lives that cold December day. Lieutenant George Malik had served with the department for ten years, the whole time with Engine 34. He left two children, George, Jr., 10, and Judy, 8.
Fireman John Jarose, a father of three children, Diane, 11; Kenneth, 7, and John, Jr., 2, also died. He had fractured a leg fighting a fire at St. Ignatius High School the previous January and had spent three months recovering in a hospital.
Fireman Robert Jordan was looking forward to spending the first Christmas in a new home with his wife and three children, Gregory, 16; Barbara, 13, and Robert, Jr., 8. He had been a fireman for ten years.
Fireman Robert R. Schaack had been wounded on Okinawa and drove a truck before joining the fire department. He had been a fireman for five years and lived with his parents.
The last fireman to be removed from the wreckage was Captain Nicholas Schmidt, 56, who had 26 years of service with the department, serving with Company 112 and with Engine 107. He left a widow, Lillian, and three sons, John, 24; Robert, 23, and Edward, 8, along with two daughters, Mary, 20, and Audrey 12.
The equipment is better these days, and the protective gear the firefighters wear provides more protection than it did back in 1953. The danger, though, is just as great and the firefighters just as brave as they ever were.
The death in the line of duty this past Monday of firefighter Daniel Capuano reminds us of that. Our thoughts are with his family, friends, and comrades as they mourn his passing. Firefighter Capuano’s wake today and tomorrow’s funeral are reminders of how special these men and women are, folks who at a moment’s notice drop everything and walk into unknown peril to search for, assist, and, often, save the lives of people they have never met.
As you give thanks this holiday season, take a moment to give thanks for them.