Today marks the 100th anniversary of the worst disaster to ever befall the Chicago Fire Department. My great-grandfather Fire Marshal James Horan was among the 21 who were buried beneath an avalanche of bricks in the Union Stockyards. The fire is memorialized in the new book Chicago’s Forgotten Tragedy.
The book was written by retired Chicago firefighter Bill Cosgrove. He and fellow retiree Bill Cattorini were the driving force behind the creation of the Chicago Firefighters Memorial. The monument is located just inside the old limestone gate to the stockyards and features three sculpted figures: the fire marshal raising his bugle as he warns his men; a hook and ladder man falling backward with his axe and a pipeman training his hose, unaware of the building’s collapse.
The monument was dedicated on Dec. 22, 2004. On that day, in the freezing cold, I was gripping a photograph of “Big Jim” Horan that had graced my grandmother’s nightstand, and it drew newspaper and TV reporters.
I told them that when I was growing up my family didn’t talk much about the fire marshal. Whenever I asked my dad, he’d say, “It would take a dumb Irishman to get 20 guys killed.”
After my dad passed away, I decided to find out if Horan had been a dumb guy. I spent years digging and accumulated a box of historic materials. I tried to write my own book but only produced 20 pages. I was gratified, nonetheless, to learn that “Big Jim” had been a larger-than-life hero, who made daring rescues and modernized the department.
I even persuaded WTTW to produce a documentary about the tragedy, in which I was mistakenly billed as “John Price.” I’ve also told the sad story to Chicago schoolchildren and received colorful drawings with scrawled sentences celebrating “Big Jim” and his men.
On Oct. 8, 2010, the centennial was observed. It was a glorious autumn day. A giant American flag, suspended between two snorkels, flapped above the monument. I met up with an aunt and cousin I hadn’t seen in years and got to meet family members of other victims.
The most moving part of the ceremony was when a new name was unveiled on the monument. The fire department band played “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes and the department helicopter flew over to honor Christopher Wheatly, who had been killed in a restaurant fire in August. I’ll never forget the faces of his grief stricken fiancé and sobbing father.
Chicago’s Forgotten Tragedy tells wonderful stories about my great-grandfather and the early days of the department. It recounts how “Big Jim” argued with the city council for a high-pressure water system for the stockyards the day before he died. And, how in the pre-dawn of Dec. 22, 1910, he told his wife, “It’s nothing dear, just another fire.”
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.