Elgin service recalls 1974 dam-rescue deaths
Eight Elgin firefighters are listed on a wall at Elgin Fire Barn No. 5 Museum that honors those who died of injuries suffered on duty. Two had heart attacks; one injured a leg and died of the resulting infection; one died of a concussion; one was crushed under the wheels of a fire truck; and one died of a shotgun injury.
Saturday, firefighters remembered the two who lost their lives 40 years ago this summer, trying to save a teenager from drowning in the boil under the Kimball Street dam on the Fox River. Two teens had, on a dare, ridden a raft over the dam on the flood-swollen river. They capsized in the hydraulic roller, or boil, below the dam. One was thrown free; the other was stuck.
To his rescue came Station 2 Pipeman Michael Whalen and his captain, Stanley Balsis, said current Fire Chief John Fahy.
"They did what they are supposed to do. They got their boat in the water and they were the ready to go," Fahy said of Balsis and Whalen.
Both were killed when their rescue boat capsized. Whalen died almost immediately when their boat slammed against the concrete wall of the dam.
"And the tragedy had begun," Fahy said, at the annual Elgin Area Firefighters' Memorial Service at George Van De Voorde Firefighter Memorial Park.
Balsis held on to the capsized boat for 45 minutes, with a broken arm and a separated shoulder, battered by the roil. Efforts to save him proved fruitless, as he could not hang on to flotation devices firefighters threw to him to pull him out. The raging waters took him.
"This is what Captain Balsis signed up to do," Fahy said.
Both teenagers survived the tragedy.
The memorial message from guest speaker Bob Shaw was especially poignant. Shaw, chief of the Du Quoin Fire Department, read a poem he wrote about the death of his 22-year-old son, a firefighter, from a building collapse at a fire in Pinckneyville three years ago.
It recalls the accident, Shaw's helpless feeling at realizing it was his son who was injured and his raw emotion on the day of the pomp-filled funeral.
"I am late, far too late. I can only turn and repeat, 'That's my boy. That's Corey Shaw.' … I curse God, fire and all the shining engines," he read.
Shaw said he has since dedicated himself to improving training for firefighters in his mostly rural area, in honor of his son.
The ceremony featured representatives of the Algonquin/Lake in the Hills, Bartlett, Elgin, East Dundee, Hampshire, Hanover Park, Hoffman Estates, Huntley, Pingree Grove, Rutland, South Elgin, Streamwood and West Dundee fire departments and protection districts.
Besides remembering three Illinois firefighters who died on the job in the past year, the representatives also detailed former members of their departments who have died in the last year.
"Once you are a firefighter, you are always a firefighter. It's what you do. It's what you wanted to do. It's how you lived your lives," Fahy said.