|Agency||Chicago Fire Department|
|Type of Firefighter||Career|
|Age Range||41 to 45|
|Date of Birth||4/4/1935|
|Date of Death||11/22/1976|
|Cause of Death||Struck by object|
|Nature of Death||Trauma|
|Attribute of Death||Smoke inhalation|
|Type of Duty||Firefighting operations|
On November 22, 1976, Chicago Fire Department Firefighter Walter Watroba of Engine 13 died in the line of duty following a five-alarm fire at the Commonwealth Edison generating plant on W. Cermak Road. The fire had started in a warehouse around 8:30 p.m. on November 21, and was spread throughout the plant by a quarter-mile coal conveyor chute system. As firefighters were battling the blaze, the chute collapsed, spreading the fire even further, and trapping three firefighters on the roof of a seventy-foot warehouse.
The firefighters were trapped beneath the collapsed chute on a narrow, eighteen-inch ledge. As rescuers raced to free the trapped firefighters, other firefighters immediately swarmed the area to spray the warehouse roof with water to keep it cool and to extinguish the flames that threatened their trapped colleagues. Two of the trapped firefighters were quickly rescued, but Watroba’s legs, from the mid-thigh down, were pinned between the steel chute and the concrete roof. Using air hammers, crowbars, airbags, and jacks, rescuers worked throughout the windy and snowy night to release Watroba, who remained conscious throughout the ordeal.
After more than seven hours of rescue work, Watroba’s left leg was freed, but his right leg remained trapped. Due to the extent of his injuries, which included smoke inhalation, a crushed left leg, and other internal injuries, Watroba’s condition steadily declined throughout the night. The fire department physician soon concluded that amputating Watroba’s right leg to free him from the rubble was the last chance to save his life. Watroba gave his consent for the two-minute surgery, which was performed on the narrow ledge in almost complete darkness. Watroba went into shock and lost consciousness as he was transported from the roof to a waiting ambulance. Paramedics attempted to revive him, but he was pronounced dead at Mercy Hospital. Watroba’s funeral included full departmental honors, and, in 2007, a memorial to Watroba was installed at the Engine 13 firehouse.
Davd Axelrod and John Gorman, “Fire rakes Edison complex,” Chicago Tribune, November 22, 1976.
John Gorman, “Heroic effort fails, a fireman dies: Lost leg, then life,” Chicago Tribune, November 23, 1976.
Dorothy Collin, “Doctor: Worse than war,” Chicago Tribune, November 23, 1976.
Phillip Wattley, “Edison plant ruins combed for clues,” Chicago Tribune, November 23, 1976.
Phillip Wattley, “Plant at half capacity- Edison fire estimate: $2 million,” Chicago Tribune, November 24, 1976.
“Muffled drums: Fireman’s farewell,” Chicago Tribune, November 25, 1976.