|Agency||Chicago Fire Department|
|Type of Firefighter||Career|
|Age Range||46 to 50|
|Date of Birth||0/0/0|
|Date of Death||6/5/1946|
|Cause of Death||Contact/Exposure|
|Nature of Death||Asphyxiation|
|Attribute of Death||Smoke inhalation|
|Type of Duty||Firefighting operations|
On June 5, 1946, Chicago Fire Department Battalion Chief Eugene T. Freemon, commander of the 1st Battalion, was fatally injured in the line of duty while fighting a 5-11 fire at the LaSalle Hotel, located at the intersection of LaSalle and Madison Streets in downtown Chicago. The worst hotel fire in Chicago history, sixty-one people died during the LaSalle Hotel Fire, thirty more were hospitalized, and more than two hundred others were injured.
Investigators were unable to pinpoint the cause of the fire, but it originated shortly after midnight either behind the walls or in the ceiling of the Silver Grill Cocktail Lounge, a bar adjoining the LaSalle Hotel lobby. Customers soon noticed the smell of burning wood, and when small flames shot up from beneath the lounge’s wood-paneled walls, there was an unsuccessful attempt to extinguish the fire using seltzer water and sand. The fire department was not immediately alerted, and during this time the flames spread through the walls and ceilings, fed by the elaborate, highly-varnished wood paneling throughout the lounge, the two-story hotel lobby, and the mezzanine balcony overlooking the lobby.
The fire department received the first report of the fire at 12:35 AM, fifteen minutes after the flames were first discovered. Freemon arrived minutes later with Engine 40, Hook and Ladder 6, and Squad 1, and immediately pulled a 2-11 alarm when he saw the wall of flames in the hotel lobby. A few minutes later, a 5-11 alarm was ordered, bringing more than 300 firefighters to the scene. By this time, the fire had spread up two open staircases to the third, fourth, and fifth floors, and smoke filled the building.
Freemon led a group of firefighters into the building to search for victims once the flames in the lobby were under control, but a portion of the mezzanine collapsed onto the firefighters. The trapped firefighters were rescued, but it took another thirty minutes before the lobby fire was completely extinguished and even more time to extinguish the flames on the floors above. Freemon was transported to a hospital, but died, having been overcome by smoke.
In the end, more than 150 hotel occupants were rescued from the lower seven floors via fire department ladders, and a majority of guests, 900 in all, were able to escape using the hotel’s extensive network of fire escapes. Of the sixty hotel occupants who died, a majority were killed from smoke inhalation during the first minutes of the fire. The loss of life was blamed on the extensive combustible woodwork throughout the hotel lobby, and the lack of fire protection systems, including sprinklers, detectors, and fire alarms. The LaSalle Hotel Fire also prompted the city to begin installing two-way radios into all fire apparatus.
“16 Dead in Hotel Fire,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 5, 1946.
“Police Lists of Dead and Injured in the La Salle Hotel Fire,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 6, 1946.
“Disaster Cause Still Mystery; Guests Ousted,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 6, 1946.
“Need of Radio Told to Speed Help at Fires,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 9, 1946.
“Report La Salle Fire Began in False Ceiling,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 9, 1946.