‘It’s going like hell’: Recalling Chicago’s tragic Hubbard Street fire

Firefighters worked frantically to save fellow members as the building collapsed around them; 9 did not survive


There arises at times situations demanding quick action. Action with little or no time to think. To act or not act at the moment is the choice. Action without deliberation for one’s own safety is pure courage. Such action is found in firefighters. It is the nature of their work and why fire departments exist.

Hubbard Street firefight: Ice and snow hamper operations

At 6:23 a.m. on Jan. 28, 1961, Chicago police notified the city fire alarm office of a building on fire at the corner of DesPlaines and Hubbard streets. Fire Alarm Operator John Fagan dispatched two engines, a truck, a squad and Battalion 5 Chief George Kuhn on a still alarm.

The Hubbard Street fire was struck out at 12:07 p.m. that day. The 5-11 alarm fire brought over 300 firefighters, 67 pieces of equipment and two fireboats.
The Hubbard Street fire was struck out at 12:07 p.m. that day. The 5-11 alarm fire brought over 300 firefighters, 67 pieces of equipment and two fireboats. (Photo/Fire Museum of Greater Chicago)

A call from the Chicago Transit Authority quickly followed reporting a building on fire in that general location, stating, “It’s going like hell.” Based on that information, Fagan transmitted Box 286 at 6:24 a.m.

At 6:26 a.m., as Fire Marshal John Meighan of the 1st Division was making assignments to first-arriving units, he informed dispatch that the first floor was fully involved and ordered a 2-11 alarm for 614 W. Hubbard St.

At 6:31 a.m., with heavy fire now showing across the front and the roof, Chief Meighan ordered a 3-11 for the seven-story bakery products warehouse occupied by the Hilker & Bletsch Company.

The fire building was of heavy timber and brick (mill) construction with attached exposures of ordinary construction, one being a glass company and another a trucking firm. Presumably, the rapid growth and extension of fire was due in part to stored cooking oils and combustible dust from baking products.

As there was less fire on the rear, Chief Meighan ordered Chief George Kuhn into the trucking company to check for extension and then ordered Chief George Rees into the south side exposure that housed the glass company.

Kuhn informed Meighan there was no fire extension on the north, but that he needed assistance opening a large, metal interior door. Meighan assigned the task to Squad 2.

At 6:33 a.m., Deputy Fire Marshal Harry Mohr arrived and ordered a 4-11 alarm two minutes later. Chief Mohr then walked around the building and, upon completion, ordered a 5-11 alarm be struck. Mohr and Meighan then began assigning companies to cover the east and west sides.

About this time, the entire building burst into flames.

When First Deputy Fire Marshal William OBrien arrived about 6:40 a.m., Mohr reported out and OBrien special-ordered five additional engines. Three minutes later, OBrien called for five more engines. Quickly sensing the risk of impending collapse, the three chiefs – OBrien, Mohr and Meighan – began ordering men and equipment into defensive positions.

From inside on the south, Mohr ordered Chief Rees and Truck 2 out of the building. Mohr then ordered all companies working the south side to move back and locate under a railroad trestle for protection.

Wall collapses

On the front side, OBrien ordered Squad 2 and Snorkel 2 to withdraw. As this happened, a portion of the southeast wall collapsed. Quick movement of apparatus and hoses was hampered by frigid air, ice, deep snow and wind.

At this time, Lt. Louis Repkin of Truck 19 requested help from Meighan. As the two ran toward the rear side, a portion of the upper north wall peeled away, raining bricks, mortar and burning debris down on the two men.

As Meighan got up, he heard cries for help from where Chief Kuhn was located. Kuhn had earlier ordered Squad 2 outside to open a door and held Candidate Firefighter Burns inside with him. Now the two were trapped by fallen debris. Kuhn and Burns worked their way to the west side where there were doors and windows.

Now a firefighter reported to Mohr that two men were trapped at a barred window in the two-story structure. Mohr quickly ordered an acetylene torch be sent to that window. Chief Meighan (hearing Kuhn calling for help) informed Chief OBrien, who then ordered all nearby to assist. While some remained to move equipment, Meighan and 20 to 25 men went to the rear where they saw the two trapped men at the window.

Chief Kuhn told the rescue party that if they could access a side door and open it, he and Burns could get out. Chief Rees, Lt. Repkin and two firefighters stayed behind with the torch to continue working on the window bars. Chief Meighan would later relate how the rescuers knew well the danger they were exposed to and that time was running out.

To open the door that would give Kuhn and Burns a chance to get out required that a trailer truck be moved. Chief Thomas McGurn ordered approximately 30 men to that task. As he and Meighan ran to the truck, the building collapsed. It was roughly 7:03 a.m.

Chief OBrien and the men trying to move Snorkel 2 were struck as the upper walls came down on them. Chief Meighan was knocked unconscious and covered by debris, but he regained consciousness and freed himself. Upon finding Meighan, Chief Mohr informed him of the trapped men. As Chief OBrien was informed, he requested fire alarm send three squad companies and three ambulances.

At least one man working at the window survived, as did a few who were attempting to move the truck. Survivors reported seeing their fellow firefighters trying to escape the falling walls as the debris fell upon them.

The scene was now enveloped in a cloud of flames, smoke and dust. But from within the burning debris pile came calls for help.

At this point, Chief Fire Marshal Raymond Daley arrived and ordered all hands to the northwest corner to organize for rescue. Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn then arrived and took command of the rescue operation.

Commissioner Quinn led the rescuers into the rubble and found Chief Rees, telling the buried man to hold on. But it was too late, as Chief Rees died before rescue.

The rescue team created a tunnel into the debris near where the truck had been parked in an attempt to locate Chief Kuhn and Firefighter Candidate Burns. They discovered many bodies in this area. They ultimately had to withdraw as any hope for Kuhn and Burns was lost. The bodies of the two men were later found.

Fourteen firefighters were transported to hospitals.

Remembrance

Nine firefighters perished, leaving behind families, spouses and 20 children:

  • Battalion Chief George Rees, Engine 40, Battalion 1
  • Battalion Chief George Kuhn, Engine 19, Battalion 5
  • Lt. Charles Rauch, Engine 114
  • Lt. Louis Repkin, Truck 19
  • Firefighter Hillard S. Augustine, Squad 10
  • Firefighter William Hillistad, Engine 44
  • Firefighter Stanley Sliwinski, Engine 26
  • Firefighter Ciro Zuccarello, Engine 26
  • Firefighter Robert Burns, Squad 2

At their memorial, Chief Meighan said that the men knew the building was coming down and that time was running out, but that they could not just let Chief Kuhn and Firefighter Candidate Burns die: “Time ran out on us and if tomorrow, we are faced with the same situation, we will again do our utmost in saving lives, whether it be our fellow firefighters or civilians. If we didn’t do that, there would be no reason for a fire department.”

Things to remember about the fire

As the Chicago Fire Department dealt with this 5-11 fire, a second 5-11 fire was also burning on the citys north side.

The fire was reported at 6:23 a.m., and the first units were on scene in about three minutes. The building collapsed around 7:03, roughly 40 minutes after discovery.

The Hubbard Street fire was struck out at 12:07 p.m. that day. The 5-11 alarm fire brought over 300 firefighters, 67 pieces of equipment and two fireboats.

The CFD was following the tactics and procedures of that era. There was a strong command presence. Fireground communications were face-to-face and appear to be carried out well. Command reacted quickly to signs of impending collapse and promptly ordered the transition to a defensive stance. It appears that there was basic accountability of personnel and their locations. Response to the trapped firefighters was quick.

Today, we would expect to see formal incident command system established. Personnel would have portable radios and PASS devices. RIT would be in place. We would want to see a strong preplanning effort, fire building data available on scene, and identification of hazards. And we would hope to see building and fire prevention codes being enforced. Lastly, we would want to see automatic fire sprinklers in warehouses, industrial buildings, mercantile occupancies and places of public assembly.

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