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updated: 2/26/2013 7:00 PM

Firefighter writes book about fatal fire that shaped his life

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  • Rick West/rwest@dailyherald.comElgin firefighter John Tobin has written a book about the Ben Franklin Variety Store fire that killed three Palatine volunteer firefighters 40 years ago.

      Rick West/rwest@dailyherald.comElgin firefighter John Tobin has written a book about the Ben Franklin Variety Store fire that killed three Palatine volunteer firefighters 40 years ago.

  • Rick West/rwest@dailyherald.comElgin firefighter John Tobin has written a book about the Ben Franklin Variety Store fire that killed three Palatine volunteer firefighters 40 years ago.

      Rick West/rwest@dailyherald.comElgin firefighter John Tobin has written a book about the Ben Franklin Variety Store fire that killed three Palatine volunteer firefighters 40 years ago.

 

Elgin firefighter John Tobin thought writing about the tragic fire that shaped his life would prove therapeutic.

The West Dundee man plans to retire this year and figured putting together a collection of photos and memories would be his "final swan song."

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But his self-published book, "The Day Death Visited a Small Town: The Story of Tragedy and the Dismantling of a Small Town Fire Department," hasn't provided the relief he was seeking.

"I thought by writing the book, it would ease the pain I have felt all these years," Tobin said. "But I find the pain still runs deep."

The book includes provocative photos he took as a Palatine High School senior who grew up idolizing the department. Classmate Rick Cartwright also captured several moving moments.

Drawing from his own memories and those of firefighters on the scene, Tobin describes in great detail the events of Feb. 23, 1973, when three Palatine volunteer firefighters died in the Ben Franklin store fire.

Some parts are difficult to read, especially sentiments of guilt felt in the years that followed. Tobin's father, for one, wished he had told one of the firefighters to pull out when he had the chance.

And Charlie Altman, the welding store owner who reported the fire, figured no one would have died had he waited longer to alert the fire department to the smoke he saw.

The book also dedicates a brief section to each of the key players in the fire, illustrating the department's close brotherhood.

Although most people have responded positively, Tobin said a few reacted with anger, accusing him of being disrespectful or exploitive.

He's also learned that for some, the grief is still very palpable.

Despite the mixed reaction, Tobin continues to dedicate himself to honoring the three fallen firefighters: Warren Ahlgrim, Richard Freeman and John Wilson.

For Saturday's 9 a.m. ceremony at the Palatine Firefighters Memorial, he got Plote Construction to donate a delivery truck and arranged to bring back the massive Snorkel ladder truck used to fight the 1973 fire.

The northeastern Indiana fire department now using the apparatus agreed to part with it for the weekend.

"It's my intention that the fallen three live on in our hearts," Tobin said. "I don't want them to ever be forgotten."

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