The Hubbard Street Fire: The 50th anniversary of a tragic dual collapse

By the time crews arrived at the warehouse on Hubbard Street, the seven-story structure was already heavily involved, with flames shooting out the windows. All photos courtesy Fire Museum of Greater Chicago

 

The fireground just minutes after the second collapse.

Firefighters dug frantically through the rubble to try to rescue their trapped brothers.

It took hours amid freezing temperatures for firefighters to dig out all nine of their fallen brothers.

Blistering wintry weather and freezing temperatures made much of the firefighters’ equipment difficult or impossible to use. Here, Pumper 1 is frozen over, but still functioning.

The warehouse stands covered in water that quickly turned to ice.

What was left of the warehouse after the fire was extinguished.

Firefighter Wally Lynch was one of the 15 firefighters injured at Hubbard Street.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Hubbard Street Fire, which took the lives of nine Chicago firefighters:

 

  • Battalion Chief George Rees
  • Battalion Chief George Kuhn
  • Lt. Charles Rauch
  • Lt. Louis Repkin
  • Firefighter Hillard Augustine
  • Firefighter William Hillistad
  • Firefighter Stanley Sliwinski
  • Firefighter Ciro Zuccarello
  • Firefighter Robert Burns

We honor their sacrifice today and recall the events that tragically took their lives.

Two Collapses
At 0623 HRS on Jan. 28, 1961, Chicago firefighters were dispatched to a seven-story warehouse fire on Hubbard Street, but by the time they arrived, the structure was already heavily involved. Crews observed fire coming from upper-floor windows, and soon after arrival, they called for additional alarms. In all, 316 firefighters responded to the scene, bringing with them 67 pieces of apparatus. Fireboats, ambulances, and rescue squads also responded.

Crews tried attacking the fire from a two-story building adjacent to the warehouse, which was located in a railroad yard and heavy industry area. But at 0700 hrs, as firefighters were working on the roof of the two-story building, the adjoining warehouse wall suddenly collapsed onto them. Fellow firefighters rushed to the roof and tried to dig the buried men out from under the debris, but as they were pulling the men out, the roof they were standing on also suddenly collapsed, about 8 minutes after the first collapse.

The fire raged on as rescuers attempted to cut through the debris with chainsaws, but both rescue efforts and firefighting efforts were hampered by the extreme winter weather. In zero-degree temperatures, water quickly turned to ice, freezing firefighters equipment.

Hours later, firefighters were able to retrieve their nine brothers who never made it out of the rubble. Fifteen other firefighters were injured.

The Aftermath
Funerals and a memorial service for the nine men were held on Feb.1 1961. Those in attendance included the victim’s families, the Chicago Fire Department, the mayor at the time, Richard J. Daley and various city council members.

In October, 2010, a presentation was given at the Quinn Fire Academy in Chicago to mark the 50th anniversary of this tragic event. Wally Lynch, one of the 15 firefighters injured in the Hubbard Street incident, was in attendance.

Acknowledgment
Special thanks to Fr. John McNalis, Asst. Chaplain of the Chicago Fire Department, for his assistance with this article and photos.

Sources: The Illinois Fire Service Institute, Fire Museum of Greater Chicago

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