'Everywhere ... something was burning': How suburban firefighters helped in Rockton

  • Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Deputy Fire Chief John Knebl took pictures during his time helping fight the Chemtool plant fire in Rockton.

    Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Deputy Fire Chief John Knebl took pictures during his time helping fight the Chemtool plant fire in Rockton. Courtesy of John Knebl

  • Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Deputy Fire Chief John Knebl

    Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Deputy Fire Chief John Knebl

  • At the site of the Chemtool plant fire in Rockton, Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Deputy Fire Chief John Knebl took a picture representing the many surrounding communities assisting in fighting the massive fire.

    At the site of the Chemtool plant fire in Rockton, Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Deputy Fire Chief John Knebl took a picture representing the many surrounding communities assisting in fighting the massive fire. Courtesy of John Knebl

  • Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Deputy Fire Chief John Knebl was part of the command team that led the battle against the Chemtool plant fire in Rockton.

    Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Deputy Fire Chief John Knebl was part of the command team that led the battle against the Chemtool plant fire in Rockton. Courtesy of John Knebl

  • Firefighters from throughout Illinois and from surrounding states have worked around the clock since Monday's massive fire at the Chemtool plant in Rockton.

    Firefighters from throughout Illinois and from surrounding states have worked around the clock since Monday's massive fire at the Chemtool plant in Rockton. Courtesy of John Knebl

  • A firetruck from one of 84 responding departments helps battle the Chemtool plant fire in Rockton.

    A firetruck from one of 84 responding departments helps battle the Chemtool plant fire in Rockton. Courtesy of John Knebl

 
 
Updated 6/17/2021 9:06 AM

As John Knebl drove west toward Rockton as part of a caravan of firefighting vehicles on Monday, a black speck in the distance grew to a billowing cloud of smoke overwhelming the horizon.

The deputy chief of the Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Fire Protection District was part of a massive response of more than 80 fire departments to the blaze at the Chemtool Inc. lubricant production plant that included dozens of suburban communities sending fire crews up to three hours away in conjunction with the statewide Mutual Aid Box Alarm System partnership.

 

As soon as the call was made to the 69 MABAS divisions in Illinois, Knebl and other suburban firefighters responded to assist colleagues in the town north of Rockford near the Wisconsin border.

"In 25 years, I haven't seen an incident this large," he said. "It wasn't just the black plume of smoke everyone saw. Everywhere you looked in the plant, something was burning. The amount of fire equipment and personnel on the scene was just incredible."

Knebl and McHenry Township Fire Protection District Chief Rudy Horist were part of the team that supervised the scene in the late afternoon on Monday to relieve Rockton fire officials who had been on duty since the fire began early in the morning. Until about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, Knebl and Horist helped direct MABAS divisions in a dizzying array of assignments.

Because only one of two hydrants functioned at the site, Knebl said tender trucks continually needed to deliver water from wherever it could be found. Crews had to divert runoff water away from the nearby Rock River to prevent possible contamination. Units contained brush fires in the surrounding wooded areas.

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The entire time, the Environmental Protection Agency and other groups monitored air and water quality. One injury to a firefighter was reported while local homes and businesses had to be evacuated.

In 38 years as a firefighter, Horist never had seen a fire nor a response this large. As his MABAS group of surrounding departments converged in Huntley, other MABAS divisions gathered in Cook, DuPage, Kane and Lake counties.

"We had apparatus there from hours away, and that's the beauty of the MABAS system," Horist said. "Even if a neighbor from hours away needs our help, we want to provide it."

In the hours and days that followed, fire units from Arlington Heights, Cary, Elgin, Lake Zurich, Mundelein, St. Charles and many other suburbs responded. By the time West Chicago Fire Chief Patrick Tanner was called there on Tuesday, a company from Louisiana was close to finishing off the blaze with a special foam.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"The mutual aid system is one of the best in the country," said Tanner, who was part of a group of firefighter crews from Glen Ellyn, Itasca, Oak Brook and Roselle. "This is a prime example of how well organized it is in Illinois."

Antioch Fire Chief Jon Cokefair never sleeps easy when his crews are on a night call. On Monday night he sent an engine to Rockton as part of a Lake County MABAS contingent that didn't come back until 10 a.m. Tuesday.

"As a chief you need to make sure you do everything you can to get them home safely," Cokefair said. "You sleep a lot lighter on nights like that."

A MABAS division from Arlington Heights, Elk Grove Village, Hoffman Estates, Palatine and Rolling Meadows was dispatched to Rockton in the late afternoon on Monday. Rolling Meadows Lt. Pete Sutter arrived Tuesday morning to help relieve the crews that had worked through the night.

"I can't even put it into words," Sutter said. "Every firefighter's got their one big fire. It's definitely something that I never thought I'd come across."

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