30 years later: Arlington Park fire burned into suburban memories

When Chuck Kramer and his fellow Arlington Heights firefighters imagined the “nightmare scenario,” it was always the same.

A fire at Arlington Park.

The old buildings of wood and steel had been built and added on to for decades, creating a hidden maze of trapped spaces where fire could flourish behind the walls.

“We knew if a fire got in there, we might not be able to stop it,” Kramer said.

Just after 2 a.m. July 31, 1985, Kramer's radio crackled alive, waking the off-duty captain.

“There's smoke in the Horseman's Lounge, call everybody in,” he heard.

It wasn't a dream this time.

In the scant moments it took Kramer to get dressed, the fire was upgraded to a five-alarm.

Teams of firefighters from 21 departments raced to Arlington International Racecourse 30 years ago this week, unsure of what they would find.

But Kramer had only one thought in his head: “We're going to have a hell of a mess.”

• • •

Dick Duchossois woke up to a phone ringing around 1 a.m. in his Barrington Hills home.

Joe Joyce, president of the track, told him a small fire had broken out in the Horseman's Lounge, but not to worry.

An hour later he called back.

“The fire is spreading, but we have it under control,” Joyce assured Duchossois.

Another hour passed before the phone rang again.

“You better get down here” was all Duchossois heard before he started racing toward Arlington Park.

• • •

When Kramer got to Arlington Park, the luxurious Post and Paddock Club, built in the 1930s, was already beyond trying to save.

Instead, all efforts went into a desperate attempt to keep the fire from the grandstand.

Chief Bruce Rodewald hadn't been on the job a year yet, but he was now in charge of commanding crews battling the biggest fire the modern suburbs had ever seen.

He divided the building into sections and sent groups of firefighters in. Kramer went to the second floor on the west side with a team of 10.

“As long as I knew where my guys were and I knew where the exit was, we would stay there as long as we could,” said Kramer, who is now 74 and has been with the Arlington Heights Fire Department for 48 years.

The fire started in the ceiling above the Horseman's Lounge, the lounge of the Post and Paddock Club. It was an electrical blaze that got out of control quickly as it spread through decades-old construction, behind walls and ceilings.

Firefighters were pulling back multiple ceilings and walls to find fire burning behind each one.

“It was the biggest fire I've ever seen,” Kramer said. “We would tear back a wall and chase down the flames, and then there would be another wall with more flames behind it.”

Boom! A backdraft caused by heated smoke in a hidden space with minimal oxygen blasted Kramer's crew members right off their feet.

“I looked up at one of the guys on the third floor and his eyes looked like saucers, but we were OK,” he said. “We got up and kept fighting.”

There was another problem: The fire was so big, where would they get enough water to fight it?

Kramer, the engineering officer for the department, suggested bringing pumpers in to siphon water off the lake in the Arlington Park infield.

“You can't do that,” said a man wearing an Arlington Park sweatshirt. “If you drive engines across the turf track we're not going to race out there for months.”

Kramer pointed to the blazing fire and explained that racing was the last thing on his mind.

They got the tanker trucks. At one point more than 4,000 gallons of water per minute was being poured on the fire. It wouldn't be enough.

A Chicago Fire Department official was on the scene.

“You could dump that building in Lake Michigan, you're not going to put the fire out,” he told them.

• • •

By morning, new shifts of firefighters were arriving to relieve the first responders, but no one was leaving.

“Nobody wants to stop fighting this fire,” Kramer said. “Everybody was determined that they were going to put this thing out. That's a firefighter's job, that's what you do.” Kramer's team members weren't wearing air packs, saving their limited air supply for when the fire got even worse. Today, that wouldn't be allowed.

“You couldn't breathe, you couldn't see. Everybody was on the ground trying to get a breath of air,” Kramer remembers. “You can hear the roar of the fire, you can hear things collapsing, but you can't see a thing because of all that thick smoke.”

One of his firefighters worked for 17 hours with a broken ankle. Another fell in a smokey trench and fractured two ribs but kept working.

“No one left,” Kramer said.

Luckily, no one was seriously injured or killed.

“When you get to the point where you can't see anybody because it's so black and so hot, you just crawl toward the heat. You crawl toward the orange glow. Just put your hand in front of your face and keep crawling,” he said.

Kramer didn't notice the crowds of people watching the fire from up on Route 53. He didn't know embers from the fire were damaging cars in Schaumburg. He couldn't know that when future Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder and her husband got off a plane at O'Hare International Airport, home from vacation, she could see the smoke cloud from the runway.

• • •

Duchossois' family had bought an 85 percent interest in the track less than two years before the fire, and Duchossois himself had been to the track only a few times before that night.

“By the time I got here everything was going up in smoke. The west side was blazing, and everyone was worried about the fire,” he said.

Everyone, except Duchossois.

“I wasn't worried about saving it; it was beyond saving,” he said.

• • •

Around 8 a.m. Rodewald, a former Army man, had an idea. If munitions experts from Fort Sheridan could blow up part of the building, they might stop the fire in its tracks.

They began working to get the required clearance from Washington, D.C., a slow and deliberate process.

About 11 a.m., after eight hours of relentless firefighting, it was time to stop.

“We knew it was a goner when it got into the roof,” Rodewald told the Daily Herald later that day. “When it becomes a danger to human life, then you write it off as real estate.”

Kramer was in on the conversation with other top officials, which became heated.

“A lot of them said, ‘We can get this, we can get this,'” Kramer said. “But the fire was above us, below us, around us. You can't put people in that situation.”

The blast horns sounded. The order was radio broadcast around 11:30 a.m.: Evacuate now.

“The guys didn't want to stop, but it was the right decision,” Kramer said. “You can't lose people over that. Eventually a floor would drop and people would fall through and you have to live with that as chief officer.”

Within an hour the entire grandstand was engulfed and collapsing. The Aug. 1, 1985, issue of the Daily Herald read:

“Flames started shooting out of the grandstand at about 12:45 p.m. and firefighters backed their trucks about 100 yards from the building's northwest end. Just before 1 p.m., the grandstand's roof collapsed in a sheet of fire. The blaze surged east through the building.”

“It's all over,” Rodewald said to the fire chiefs huddled around him.

The explosives expert arrived from Fort Sheridan. “I think we're a dollar short and a day late,” Rodewald told him.

• • •

As he watched the grandstand collapse into a mountain of twisted steel and acrid smoke, Duchossois was already looking ahead.

“We were 24 days from the Arlington Million. How were we going to run it and how were we going to clean up?” he remembered.

Canceling the race was never an option.

In 1985 Arlington was the only track in the world with a million-dollar purse. Duchossois knew he had to honor the commitment.

“We had a moral obligation to replace what was so important to the community and the industry,” he said.

The next day wrecking equipment arrived. More than 200 crews worked to clear the debris 20 hours a day. They would take a break between 4 and 8 a.m. so the horses could work out undisturbed.

The Aug. 25 “Miracle Million” went off without a hitch with fans watching from tents as Duchossois got to work rebuilding the track, which would reopen in 1989.

• • •

William Maki was on the Arlington Heights village board in 1985 and was village president by the time Arlington Park reopened four years later.

The transformation between the two points was just unbelievable, he said.

“The place was in ruins,” said Maki, who is now chief justice at the Rolling Meadows courthouse. “I just didn't know how they were going to do it. But, having some familiarity with Dick Duchossois, I knew if anyone would, he would get it done.”

The reopening is still one of the proudest moments of Maki's political career.

“It was quite an occasion to look at the new facilities that had been built,” he said. “They truly did a magnificent job.”

• • •

When Kramer returned to the rubble-filled site after taking a few hours' reprieve from his 18 hours of work the day before, smoke was still rising from the ruins. He saw investigators carefully crawling over the debris.

Kramer climbed a now-defunct escalator to the dining room that once wined and dined high-level gamblers during races. All that was left was a steaming hunk of twisted steel in one corner, water-soaked piles of melted debris in another.

Then he noticed something.

A dinner plate that said “Arlington Park” and one wineglass had somehow survived the fire intact. He took the place setting, washed it and kept it in his office for years. Now both are on display in the Arlington Heights Fire Department, not far from the office where Kramer manages the department's emergency planning.

At 74, he doesn't fight fires anymore, but with several generations of firefighters in his family, Kramer has no plans to retire.

Thirty years later, the memory of the fire at Arlington Park is still strong.

For Arlington Heights, it is the dividing mark between eras at the track.

For Duchossois, it was a defining moment, but one that seems to have passed in the blink of an eye.

“It's been the fastest 30 years of my life,” he said. “But I can remember it as if it were yesterday.”

For Kramer, it was one amazing blaze in a nearly half-century of fires, accidents and saves. It's not the most tragic thing he's ever seen — that title goes to the 1982 Tylenol poisonings that killed seven people and were never solved.

It's not the most life-altering — that would be a motorcycle accident that involved a young girl who looked too much like his daughter and scared him off his own bike for good.

But the fire at Arlington Park was memorable for Kramer, and many others, for another reason.

“Watching the track when the fire had totally engulfed it in flames was just a sight to see,” he said. “We've never seen a fire that big and we never will again.”

Images: 30th Anniversary of the Arlington Park Fire

  Charles Kramer, assistant EMA coordinator for the Arlington Heights Fire Department, talks about the day the track burned to the ground. Mark Welsh/
A shot of firefighter Chuck Kramer at the track the day of the fire. Courtesy of Arlington Heights Fire Department
The Arlington Park fire rages out of control on July 31, 1985. Daily Herald File Photo
  Charles Kramer, assistant EMA coordinator for the Arlington Heights Fire Department, talks about the day that the Arlington racecourse burned to the ground. He saved a glass that was sitting on the table and a special plate with track logo on it. Mark Welsh/
  A dinner plate and a wineglass were recovered from the ruins of Arlington Park and are on display at the Arlington Heights Fire Department. Mark Welsh/
The July 31, 1985, fire rages at Arlington Park. Daily Herald file photo
Arlington Park collapses into a mass of twisted steel. Daily Herald File Photo
Firefighters at Arlington Park take a breather. Daily Herald file photo
The Arlington Park fire on July 31, 1985. Daily Herald file photo
Horses work out on the track at Arlington Park in the days after the fire. Daily Herald File Photo
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