First firefighter on scene remembers Arlington Park fire 35 years later

  • The July 31, 1985, fire at Arlington Park overtook the grandstand once officials determined that after hours of fighting, it had become too risky to save.

    The July 31, 1985, fire at Arlington Park overtook the grandstand once officials determined that after hours of fighting, it had become too risky to save. Daily Herald File Photo

  • Arlington Park's grandstand became a mass of twisted building materials after the historic July 31, 1985, fire. It broke out in the Horseman's Lounge and was blamed on an electrical malfunction.

    Arlington Park's grandstand became a mass of twisted building materials after the historic July 31, 1985, fire. It broke out in the Horseman's Lounge and was blamed on an electrical malfunction. Daily Herald File Photo

  • Glenn Ericksen was early into his career as a firefighter when he drove the first truck to arrive on the scene of the Arlington Park fire on July 31, 1985.

    Glenn Ericksen was early into his career as a firefighter when he drove the first truck to arrive on the scene of the Arlington Park fire on July 31, 1985.

 
 
Updated 7/31/2020 9:26 AM

Four years into his budding career as a firefighter, Glenn Ericksen was used to putting out routine fires in apartments, single-family homes and small businesses in Arlington Heights.

Then in the early morning hours of July 31, 1985, he and his co-workers at the firehouse got the call they'll never forget: A fire had broken out in the Horseman's Lounge at Arlington Park.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Ericksen drove the first engine that arrived on the scene.

"When we got on the grounds itself, we were met by a security guard in a vehicle flashing his lights. We've never seen that before, so it was kinda like, 'Uh oh,'" he said.

"Still, it didn't really look bad, but they were telling us the fire was on the other side of the building. We pulled out on the track surface where we saw the bulk of the fire. It's where we sat til the early afternoon that day."

Ericksen, who became Arlington Heights' fire chief years later and now coordinates a statewide firefighting response consortium, has fought a lot of blazes over the course of some four decades in the fire service. But there have been none greater in the suburbs before or since the one 35 years ago at the racetrack.

"I'm sure the city of Chicago has had some larger-scales," said Ericksen, who has been CEO of the Wheeling-based Mutual Aid Box Alarm System since retiring as Arlington Heights' chief in 2014. "But the number of firefighters and companies that it took and the time it took to fight it and eventually have the outcome that it did, no, I haven't seen anything like that."

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Positioned on the racetrack itself, Ericksen and his fellow firefighters hooked up to a nearby hydrant connected to Arlington Park's private water supply. But the threads on the hydrant soon broke.

They eventually tapped into the municipal water system, had other fire companies truck in an alternative supply, and even drew water out of the infield lake at the track.

Still, the blaze kept growing. As firefighters pulled back layers upon layers of floors, walls and ceilings, all they found was more flames.

By afternoon, officials decided to pull back and let the blaze overtake the building.

"I remember that decision very vividly," said Ericksen, recalling the thick black smoke they had been fighting all morning overtaking his engine position on the track.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We were driving blind trying to get away from it."

No one was injured or killed in the massive blaze, attributed to an electrical fire that quickly got out of control.

But there were a number of lessons learned from that day, Ericksen said.

Fire departments started using larger-diameter hoses -- essentially "aboveground water mains" -- so they could attack bigger fires, he said.

Firefighter training also began to focus on how to stay safe when responding to a blaze in a large facility.

And while the value of mutual aid -- in place in northern Illinois since the late 1960s -- was reinforced in the region, it also greatly expanded statewide, Ericksen said.

Fire:

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