History of 1910 Stock Yards Fire hits close to home

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By John Rice

Columnist / Staff reporter

I admire John Hogan and Alex Burkholder. They accomplished something I couldn't. They completed a book focusing on the 1910 Stock Yards Fire that took the life of my great-grandfather, Fire Marshal James Horan.

"Big Jim," as he was known, was killed with 20 of his men by a collapsing six-story brick wall. This Friday, at 7 p.m., John and Alex are signing copies of Fire Strikes the Chicago Stock Yards at Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore.

The two authors approached me three years ago with the idea of writing the book. I had given it a try but only generated 30 pages. I was happy to loan them my research materials. They also received a wealth of Horan family history from my late cousin, Mark Conerty.

I didn't know their background at the time, but Alex and John were well-equipped to co-write a book. They had worked together in broadcast news at WGN. John had already composed some full-length manuscripts, while Alex, a fire buff, had extensive knowledge of the Chicago Fire Department.

The two met at a reunion of WGN retirees on Oct. 16, 2010. A week later, they launched the project. They spent the ensuing years going through newspaper files, interviewing fire personnel and relatives of the victims. They also had the assistance of two fire department historians, Ken Little and the late Sully Kolomay.

During this process of discovery, the tragic story touched John in many ways. He had great empathy for the firefighters and felt he got to know my great-grandfather. It also opened Alex's eyes, as he had never delved into the horse-drawn days of the department. He noted that the same companies that responded on that bitterly cold night of Dec. 10, 1910 are still fighting fires today.

That night, a fire started inside a storage warehouse. The first units found the stock yard water system shut down. After they finally got their hoses working, the water pressure dropped and they had to lay miles of hose to reach distant hydrants.

The fire had been raging for an hour, when Big Jim arrived. He was livid that the firemen had not advanced into the building but was told heavy smoke had forced their retreat. He dispatched subordinates to check the condition of the building. Meanwhile, he and his men were in a precarious position. Railroad cars at their backs cut off escape. When the wall collapsed without warning, Big Jim and his men were quickly buried.

Thanks to the efforts of Chicago firemen past and present, this tragedy — the worst involving firemen prior to 9/11 — has not been forgotten. A monument has been erected, a documentary aired, a previous book written. Now we have an account that comes closest to explaining the last hours of Big Jim and his heroic men.

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