- Chicago Fire Department
- Year of Death: 1961
On January 28, 1961, Firefighter William Hillistad, along with eight other Chicago firefighters, died in the line of duty battling a warehouse fire at 614 Hubbard Street. The fire started in the upper floors of the seven story warehouse, which was located in a railroad yard and heavy industry area. The warehouse stored bakery supplies for the Hilker and Bletsch Company and frozen foods for the P and P Blueberry Packing Company. Immediately adjacent to the warehouse was a two-story building containing one-gallon tin containers for packaging and storing food.
The warehouse fire burned for some time before it was noticed by nearby railroad workers. By the time the fire department was contacted, receiving the first alarm at 6:23 AM, flames were already bursting through windows in the warehouse. Within twenty minutes, the alarm was raised to a 5-11, followed by a special alarm. The additional alarms brought in 316 firefighters, 67 pieces of apparatus and equipment, four ambulances, and three rescue squads. Nearby fireboats also responded to the incident to pump water from the Chicago River.
Battalion Chief George Kuhn led several firefighters onto the roof of the adjacent two-story building in an attempt to run a hose into the burning warehouse. Without warning, the adjoining warehouse wall suddenly collapsed onto the smaller building, burying Kuhn and his team in the debris. Firefighters raced to dig their comrades out of the rubble and, as they were pulling injured firefighters out of the wreckage, the roof of the smaller building collapsed, trapping both the initial victims and a number of rescuers.
With flames still blazing over their heads and even more firefighters now trapped, rescuers used portable chainsaws to cut through the wreckage and shored up the debris in an attempt to dig a ten foot shaft to the trapped victims. The weather, with temperatures hovering just over zero degrees, also wreaked havoc on the fire department’s response efforts. Because of the water used in the firefighting operations, the area surrounding the warehouse was quickly covered in water and ice and equipment was frozen in place.
The flames were eventually extinguished later in the day, but the ruins continued to smolder for several days. After hours of digging, firefighters were able to recover the remains of all of their fallen comrades. In the end, nine firefighters were killed and fifteen firefighters were injured. Fire Marshal Meighan later commented he had never seen a fire like it and called it “a total mass of flames” from the first to seventh floor.
Along with the traditional funeral rites for the victims, a memorial service was held in the city council chamber for the fallen firefighters on February 1, 1961. The service was attended by the families of the victims, Chicago firefighters, Mayor Richard J. Daley, aldermen, members of the clergy, and various city council officials. They met to memorialize the heroic efforts of the firefighters, and the city council members adopted a resolution praising the bravery of the firemen.
This firefighter line of duty fatality occurred before the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial was built in Emmitsburg, Maryland. While this firefighter has not been officially honored at the Memorial site, there are plans to do so when resources are available.