December 17, 1953
Chiacago Fire Department (IL)
Number of Line-of-Duty Deaths:
Memorial Monday—Five Chicago Firefighters Die at Reliance Hotel Fire
Remembering Firefighters John Jarose, Robert Jordan, George Malik, Robert Schaack, and Captain Nicholas Schmidt
On a cold Chicago morning, shortly after 2:30 am on December 17, 1953, firefighters received a report of fire at the Reliance Hotel Fire at 1702 West Madison Street. Firefighters arrived at the scene promptly, only to find the three-story hotel in flames. The fire quickly escalated to three alarms, bringing 100 firefighters to the scene.
At the time, the skid row hotel was being remodeled—but was still open for business. The hotel manager awoke to a smell of smoke and alerted the guests on his way to the first floor to report the fire; a police patrol also reported the fire at around the same time. Seventy-five occupants were rescued from the Reliance; all but one of its occupants escaped unharmed: a 45-year-old resident, who is believed to have set the fire. Officials found a note in his pocket confessing to several crimes in addition to setting fires in 12 apartment buildings.
Firefighters were working feverishly to contain the fire when, without warning, the front of the building collapsed at around 3:49 am. Those on the roof rode on top of the collapsing building and were able to rescue themselves after the fall. One firefighter described it as “like sliding down a chute.” Fire crews working inside the building weren’t as lucky, and dozens were missing following the collapse.
Ice-encrusted firefighters worked for six hours, digging through the debris with their hands and tools while others continued working to contain the fire. The blaze was contained after 4:30 am.
After the fire was under control, crews continued to work to rescue the trapped and injured firefighters. They worked in frigid temperatures to free their colleagues, under the risk of a secondary collapse. The Chicago Daily News reported that “At the height of the rescue work, all of the city’s police and fire resuscitators were at the wreckage to revive firemen as they were rescued.” The Salvation Army and Red Cross provided food, hot beverages, and shelter to hotel residents and firefighters.
The first missing firefighter found was Robert Jordan of Truck Company 2, who had died. When Mrs. Edyth Jordan came to the scene in search of her husband, clutching a newspaper photo of him at another fire, unknowing firefighters told her that he was injured. She went to Presbyterian Hospital believing him to be alive, but was informed that he had died from his injuries.
A few hours later, firefighters recovered the bodies George Malik and John Jarose, both of Engine Company 31.
One of the members who was trapped, Ray Nowicki, was stuck in a pocket of debris that was not yet reachable. Firefighters talked to him while they worked to find a way to rescue him. “I’m fine¾just take it easy,” he said to the crew. In the meantime, firefighters held Dr. Joseph Campbell down into the hole by the ankles so he could administer a pain-killing shot to Nowicki. Dr. Herman Bundesen crawled into the pile to give a shot of morphine to Firefighter John Measner while firefighters passed bricks hand-to-hand to remove Measner from the wreckage.
Lieutenant Theodore Patronski wondered if he and nine of his colleagues would ever be found: “…we heard people working overhead. We shouted for a long time. They never seemed to hear us.” They were trapped in a ten-foot square hole. Rescuers would later find them when they spotted Patronski’s leg in the debris.
The search continued for Captain Nicholas Schmidt of Engine Company 107 and Firefighter Robert Schaack of Truck 19. Lillian Schmidt and her two daughters stood vigil at home with rosaries in hand, praying for the safe return of their firefighter. The Schmidt’s two sons waited for word of their father at the scene. But a crane was brought to the scene to help firefighters clear the debris—and the bodies Captain Schmidt and Firefighter Robert Schaack were later found.