Editorial: The legacy of a 40-year-old tragic fire
It's a reminder of a simpler time in the suburbs. A time when "five and dime" stores proliferated. A time when fighting fires in town meant rousing volunteers at home, out of bed, away from their families and their "real jobs." A time when firefighting equipment took care of the basics.
But it's also a reminder of the definition of a hero, and how heroes should always be celebrated, especially in the face of tragedy.
Forty years later, that is the message of the fallen heroes of the 1973 Ben Franklin store fire.
"We never let their memory die. We never will," former Palatine firefighter Mark Hallet said Saturday at the annual ceremony commemorating the deaths of three volunteer firefighters who died of carbon monoxide inhalation Feb. 23, 1973.
Longtime Palatine residents surely remember that day. As Daily Herald staff writer Kimberly Pohl detailed in a story Friday, volunteer firefighters Warren "Auggie" Ahlgrim, 32, Richard Freeman, 25, and John Wilson, 40, died in the store owned by Wilson. Their air packs emptied as they went to the basement to seek the cause of the early-morning fire, unaware of the carbon monoxide danger that lurked there.
"Everyone wanted to save Johnny's store and nobody realized what kind of danger they were in," remembered former Palatine firefighter George Palmer.
Today professional firefighters still make life-or-death decisions every day while battling blazes, but their equipment gives them much more information on which to make those decisions, said Palatine Fire Chief Scott Andersen. Radios with emergency alert buttons; devices that sound the alert when a firefighter is motionless; thermal imaging cameras that allow firefighters to see through thick smoke.
All of these now make firefighting safer but no less heroic.
Andersen makes sure his firefighters are always reminded of the dangers. Each of the Palatine stations posts the name, age, rank and a brief description of what happened to every firefighter killed in the United States.
"Every time they go out, they see that board," Andersen said. Not only does it honor those that made the ultimate sacrifice, but it's an opportunity to do research and learn.
"One name on this dry erase board is one too many," Andersen said. "This is what we do. This is our chosen profession. This is the tradition of a firefighter."
What a noble tradition it is. Andersen is on to something that other departments could and should emulate.
Only by remembering these fallen heroes -- even 40 years later -- can current firefighters learn what they need to know to prevent future deaths.
That is the ultimate legacy of the Palatine tragedy and those three Palatine heroes.