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posted: 2/23/2016 5:00 AM

Restored fire truck to return to scene of deadly 1973 Palatine fire

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  • Video: The "Fallen Three" firetruck

 
 

When the fire broke out at the Ben Franklin five-and-dime store on Feb. 23, 1973, John Tobin was a high school senior who lived about a mile from downtown Palatine.

It was early that morning and his father, Dave, then a second lieutenant with the village's volunteer fire department, had already left for the scene. So had the assistant chief, who lived across the street.

Tobin felt he had no choice but to ditch school. He started running toward the fire.

A frequent companion to the volunteer fire department, Tobin took photos, helped with equipment and dreamed of being a firefighter himself.

But nothing had prepared him for what he saw that morning.

"It was like dungeons and dragons out there," Tobin said Monday. "It was dark. Smoke was real thick, hanging down on the road."

Towering over the fire was Palatine's first aerial truck. Bought in 1969, it stretched 45 feet from end to end with a 75-foot ladder on top. It was like a guardian, looking over the scene while everyone below was doing their best to put out the fire.

Staring at the scene in shock, Tobin heard one firefighter say three others were trapped in the basement.

"I just didn't believe him," he said.

In his rush to get to the fire, Tobin had forgotten his camera. He ran home to get it and when he got back to downtown Palatine he saw his father working on the fire outside and knew he was safe.

"It wasn't until hours later we found out who was in there," Tobin said. Three firefighters were killed -- Warren Ahlgrim, Richard Freeman and John Wilson -- after they were trapped in the basement filled with carbon monoxide.

John Tobin inspects the fresh decals placed on his fire truck Monday.
  John Tobin inspects the fresh decals placed on his fire truck Monday. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

The fire was 43 years ago today, and Tobin has never forgotten the emotions of that day and how it changed him.

"It was just a gut-wrenching day," he said. "It was a loss of innocence. At that stage in life you don't know people who are young and vibrant that have died."

Tobin went on to become the firefighter he dreamed about and worked 34 years with the Elgin Fire Department before retiring last year.

All these years he could never get the image of that towering fire truck in front of the Ben Franklin out of his mind.

Tracking down the truck became something like an obsession for Tobin. He heard it had been sold to downstate Salem, Illinois, in 1981.

In 2003 he stopped in Salem overnight while driving home from a convention. But by then Salem had sold the truck to Pierceton, Indiana. So he paid a visit.

Jessica Barber, of Mark Your Space in Bartlett, applies decals to the fire truck that was at the 1973 Ben Franklin store fire in Palatine. The truck will return to the scene today at the village's annual memorial honoring the three firefighters killed.
  Jessica Barber, of Mark Your Space in Bartlett, applies decals to the fire truck that was at the 1973 Ben Franklin store fire in Palatine. The truck will return to the scene today at the village's annual memorial honoring the three firefighters killed. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

"When I heard that motor start up, it was like I found an old friend," Tobin said.

Earlier this year, Pierceton officials were ready to sell the old truck. They called Tobin, who told them the best he could offer was $5,000. They accepted.

"This is my childhood idol of a truck," Tobin said. "It's an investment of the heart."

For the past few days Tobin has been hard at work at the Bartlett Fire Department, where the truck is being housed while he buffs the paint, fixes the lights and creates a tribute to Ahlgrim, Freeman and Wilson.

"It brings back old memories and it honors those firefighters that were killed that day," Tobin says.

The fire truck John Tobin restored was front and center at the scene of the Ben Franklin store fire in Palatine on Feb. 23, 1973.
The fire truck John Tobin restored was front and center at the scene of the Ben Franklin store fire in Palatine on Feb. 23, 1973. - Courtesy of John Tobin

On Tuesday the restored truck will be in downtown Palatine, exactly where it was 43 years ago, as Palatine holds its annual memorial service at the Firefighters Memorial at Brockway and Slade streets. The ceremony starts at 9 a.m.

"It will be a sweet emotional tribute," he said. "I still tear up. It's a little strange all these years later to have all those emotions flowing back. I know it won't bring back my childhood heroes, but it just brings me back to what happened that day in Palatine."

After the memorial service is over, Tobin plans to keep the truck in a barn on his property in West Dundee.

"Maybe they'll have me out for the Fourth of July parade. Maybe I'll just take it for a ride on a Sunday afternoon," he said. The prospect of having his own fire truck at home has also made him popular with his 6- and 8-year-old grandchildren.

This isn't the first fire truck Tobin has restored.

In 2011, he helped restore an old New York Fire Department truck sitting in a junkyard and got it back to the city in time for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Tobin was one of many suburban firefighters who went to New York City to assist after the terrorist attacks.

He also feels a kind of kinship with the trucks that transported his father, himself and those still on the job.

"It's like the chariot," he says. "It's something that won't let you down. You get attached to it."

The Ben Franklin store fire killed three Palatine firefighters.
The Ben Franklin store fire killed three Palatine firefighters. - Courtesy of John Tobin

The Ben Franklin fire has been a lifelong fascination for Tobin, who published a book about it in 2013 for the 40th anniversary. He said that while the events of that day will always be with him, he hopes owning the truck will bring some closure to what was a difficult childhood memory.

"From seeing my dad ride that truck, to the day of the fire, to being a firefighter myself and learning to operate trucks like it, to now owning it myself, it's a pretty good 360-degree circle my life has come," he said.

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