|Agency||Chicago Fire Department|
|Type of Firefighter||Career|
|Age Range||41 to 45|
|Date of Birth||5/20/1917|
|Date of Death||2/14/1962|
|Cause of Death||Fall , Struck by object|
|Nature of Death||Trauma|
|Attribute of Death||[not applicable]|
|Type of Duty||Firefighting operations|
On February 14, 1962, two Chicago Fire Department chiefs died in the line of duty at an apartment building fire on E. 70th Street. Chief Robert J. O’Brien, head of the fire prevention bureau, and Battalion Chief Thomas A. Hoff, the assistant drillmaster for the department’s training school, were killed when the fire-weakened building collapsed.
A fire was reported in the basement of the apartment building shortly after 11:00 AM. Firefighters responded to the scene and successfully extinguished most of the flames. At approximately 12:35 PM, while firefighters were searching the apartments for trapped victims, the roof of the building began to sag and the west wall started to lean inward. Fire Commissioner Robert J. Quinn ordered all firefighters to evacuate the building, but the roof caved in before all of the firefighters could escape.
O’Brien, Hoff, and Firefighter Frank Conley were on the third floor of the building and were a few steps away from escaping onto an outside porch when the roof collapsed. They fell with the debris down to the basement where they were trapped in the wreckage. Firefighter Edward Stack, Hoff’s driver, was also on the third floor when the building collapsed, but he was able to roll out a door on the first floor as he fell with the debris. Stack later described how they had seen the ceiling start to crack and had heard the shouts from outside to evacuate the building, but when the west wall buckled the third floor gave way and the ceiling collapsed on them before they could reach the porch.
Firefighters immediately descended on the debris to try to rescue their colleagues. The rescue squads labored under a stream of water from hose lines, as the previously smoldering fire had rekindled and some of the debris was now burning furiously. Conley, who had fallen under a large beam that protected him from additional debris, was rescued thirty minutes after the collapse, having suffered some bruises and a broken finger. O’Brien’s body was recovered a short time later, but efforts to reach Hoff’s body were delayed over concerns about the weakened walls that were still standing. After wrecking equipment was brought in to take down the walls, Hoff’s body was recovered around 6 PM.
Honor guards accompanied the bodies of O’Brien and Hoff during their wakes and funerals. O’Brien was buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery on February 17, following a funeral mass at the Nativity of Our Lord Church. The funeral mass for Hoff was held at St. Margaret Church on February 19, followed by internment at St. Mary Cemetery.
“How 2 Fire Chiefs Died!” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 15,1962.
“A Dramatic Story is Told By Survivor,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 15, 1962.
“Mayor Weeps at Fire Death of Boyhood Pal,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 15, 1962.
“Blue Ribbon Jury to Probe 2 Fire Deaths,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 16, 1962.
“Three named to Jury in Fire Death Probe,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 17, 1962.
“Inquest in Fire Deaths,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 24, 1962.
“Uncle of Fire Victim Weeps and Then Dies,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 16, 1962.
“Asks Furnace Inspections as Fire Quiz Ends,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 17, 1962.