Chicago firefighter who died in rescue attempt 'loved what he did'
Juan Bucio's family members said his devotion to his job was unquestioned
By Madeline Buckley, Peter Nickeas, Patrick M. O'Connell and Tony Briscoe
CHICAGO — A Chicago Fire Department diver who died during a rescue attempt on the South Branch of the Chicago River was remembered Tuesday as a devoted father who loved being a firefighter and a member of the marine and dive team.
Juan Bucio, 46, a father of two sons, became separated from his dive partner in the water Monday night while trying to rescue a man who had fallen off a boat into the river near Ashland Avenue, fire officials said. Bucio, a 15-year veteran who served on the Fire Department’s dive team for more than a decade, disappeared briefly in the water, was located and then was lifted onto the riverbank. He was taken to Stroger Hospital, where he was pronounced dead about two hours after firefighters received the rescue call.
“He was one of the best we had,” said Ron Dorneker, chief of the Fire Department’s dive operations. “He was a great partner in the water. He was a great diver. I can’t say enough about this man. I can’t say enough about him as a father, a family man, a friend, a co-worker, a peer, as someone I swam with. He did this every day. He did this for the citizens of Chicago. He loved what he did.”
Fire and police investigators are looking into the details of what happened to Bucio during the rescue attempt, Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said. As of Tuesday afternoon, autopsy results were pending, the Cook County medical examiner’s office said.
While Bucio’s family members waited for more information about the circumstances, they said his devotion to his job was unquestioned, according to his brother-in-law John Zabojnik.
“He passed away serving his country and city, and it’s tragic,” Zabojnik said. “Our hearts are broken.”
Join the Chicago Fire Department and the entire City in honoring fallen Fire Fighter (EMT) Juan Bucio for his dedication and for always answering the call of duty. We have lost a hero but his sacrifice shall not be forgotten. Let us keep Juan Bucio and his family in our prayers. pic.twitter.com/NePuS8Gnls— Chicago Fire Media (@CFDMedia) May 29, 2018
The search for the man in the water that prompted the emergency response was suspended Tuesday afternoon. Family and friends identified him as Alberto Lopez. Lopez, 28, fell into the river about 7:50 p.m. Monday as he was sitting on the edge of a 16-foot johnboat, said Ed Cross, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Another boat had passed by and caused a large wake, Cross said.
Lopez was seen falling overboard as the boat bounced, said Ramiro Ponce, 24, one of two other men who were on the boat.
“He was in front of me and I saw him fall,” Ponce said in Spanish. “I didn’t even have time to grab him. We stopped the boat to go back to where he had fallen. We couldn’t see where he was. He was drowning and we couldn’t do anything.”
Two other divers were taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in good condition, according to the Fire Department. They were treated and released.
Bucio joined the Fire Department in 2004. A longtime lifeguard, he had the dive team in his sights and became a member a few years later. He was a strong swimmer who was adept at diving, working on the boats and from a helicopter, Dorneker said. He was the father of two sons, ages 9 and 7, and could often be found at their ballgames and neighborhood gatherings, he said.
“This is not an easy day for us,” Dorneker said outside the firehouse on Columbus Drive where the marine and dive team is based. Firefighters hung purple memorial bunting above the vehicle bays to honor Bucio. The U.S. and city of Chicago flags outside the building flew at half-staff. “This is a tragic incident and a very sad day for us.”
Bucio’s fellow dive team members described him as a dedicated teammate and “consummate professional” who went the extra mile during a rescue or in duties at the firehouse.
“Juan was incredible,” Lt. Chris Meziere said. “Juan was a great diver. Whatever you needed done, Juan got it done. … He did it for the people of Chicago. … We’re all stunned.”
May 28th, 2018 - LODD— CapturedNews Shooter (@CNshooter) May 29, 2018
CFD Diver Juan Bucio passed away while attempting to rescue a man who fell off a boat in the Chicago River. Bucio, who was 46 years old, joined the Chicago Fire Department in 2003 and became a member of its dive team in 2007. Thank you for your service.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel visited the firehouse Tuesday afternoon to offer his condolences. Emanuel choked up as he spoke of Bucio and his two sons during a brief appearance in front of reporters and television crews.
“It’s important for them to know that their dad is a hero, a Chicago hero,” the mayor said. Emanuel said he planned to meet with the family Tuesday night and asked the city to “put the Bucio family in their prayers.”
With the Memorial Day weekend winding down, the Fire Department received a call after boaters saw a person in the water near Canalport Riverwalk Park in an industrial area near the Bridgeport neighborhood on the South Side, according to Chicago Fire Commissioner Jose A. Santiago.
It’s not clear what time divers entered the water. Around 8:25 p.m., Bucio became separated from his partner. “His partner turned around, and he was missing,” Santiago said. “It was that quick.”
A mayday call immediately went out.
“We have a diver down, start making phone calls, let’s get people in, 10-4?" a marine unit supervisor said over his radio.
“You sounded muffled,” an officer answered. “I can't copy.”
“We have a possible diver down. Start calling people. Let’s get some people in.”
Crews could be seen pulling a person from a boat onto a gurney as an ambulance waited on the shore nearby around 8:50 p.m. “We got the diver out; he’s going to Stroger, critical,” a battalion chief said into his radio.
CFD fire fighter Juan Bucio, lost his life while searching for a man underwater who fell off a boat into the chicago river. pic.twitter.com/B5TeIv8ToQ— Alfredo Roman (@aromanchi) May 29, 2018
Police and fire officials said the original incident with Lopez also remains under investigation.
Bucio is the 13th Chicago firefighter to die in the line of duty since 2000, according to data from the Illinois Fire Service Institute, and the first since Daniel Capuano fell through an open elevator shaft at a vacant warehouse in December 2015.
Nationally, Bucio is the 39th U.S. firefighter to die on duty this year, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. From 2004 to 2016, an average of 102 firefighters died annually, which includes those who died of a heart attack or stroke during nonroutine physical activity on duty.
Water rescue- or dive team-related deaths are infrequent but not uncommon, according to national statistics. Prior to Bucio’s death, nine firefighters died during water rescues between 2000 and 2017, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
But the fatalities of firefighters involved in water-related actions, from the searches for bodies to training, are more common.
In 2016, several firefighters died in water-related activities, according to the fire administration. One firefighter died from an arterial gas embolism when he ran out of air during a recovery operation for the body of a drowning victim. Another died during water rescue training when he fell off a rescue sled being towed by a jet ski water scooter and suffered a spinal column injury. A third firefighter died when he suffered a medical emergency during a rescue operation on lakeside dock, according to the annual report compiled by the federal administration.
Nationwide, the most common cause of death among firefighters was overexertion, stress or a medical condition (42 percent) followed by crashes (25 percent) during 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
The last on-duty fatality of a Chicago Fire Department diver was that of Eugene Blackmon, who died while attempting to recover the bodies of two men from the Little Calumet River in May 1998.
CFD Firefighter Juan Bucio joined the dept. in 2003, & has been a member of the dive team since 2007. He is survived by his two children, ages 7 and 9, and nine siblings. https://t.co/edD02SQ9ah pic.twitter.com/ffV2tmWm3S— Ashlee Rezin (@Ashlee_Rezin) May 29, 2018
Bucio’s death sent shock waves across the country and beyond as it came two days after a diver died while assisting with the recovery of a crashed plane in Ontario, Canada.
Dive Rescue International, a Fort Collins, Colo.-based organization that provides training and equipment for aquatic public safety operations, held a meeting to discuss the incidents, according to Justin Fox, the CEO of the organization. He also called certified trainers in the Chicago area so they could express their condolences in what Fox says is a tightknit niche within the public safety community.
“Water search and rescue are low-frequency, high-risk events. It’s not the majority of calls firefighters are running on, like vehicle accidents and fires, but the risk is high in a low-visibility environment,” Fox said.
Bucio’s visibility may have been especially challenging given that he was diving at night. Rivers are also more difficult environments for divers compared with lakes and ponds, Fox said.
“There are all sorts of challenges to diving in a lake or quarry, but now you have the (river’s) current putting stress on the diver himself,” Fox said.
Bucio worked for the Chicago Police Department from 2000 to 2003. He joined the Fire Department in 2004 and became of a member of the dive team in 2007. He lived in the Clearing neighborhood, in the 6300 block of West 63rd Street on the Southwest Side.
Outside of his sons, Bucio is survived by nine siblings, including a sister who is a member of the Chicago Police Department and a brother who is a member of the Chicago Fire Department.
There will be a Fire Department procession when Bucio’s body is transported from the medical examiner’s office to a funeral home.
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