Family of fallen firefighter Capt. Herbert Johnson spoke publicly this afternoon, the day after his death fighting an extra-alarm blaze in Gage Park.
"He was always a hero to us, now he's a hero for our city," said brother-in-law Dan McMahon, standing outside the medical examiner's office surrounded by Johnson's widow and children.
McMahon said the 32-year veteran firefighter, promoted to captain just months ago, was doing what he loved. Johnson never wanted notoriety, rather he sought only to make Chicago safer.
In honor of Johnson, McMahon asked residents to make sure the smoke alarms in their homes are working, and to "give your kids a hug."
While McMahon spoke, about 15 friends and family stood with him, many with arms linked and some softly crying.
Friends and family remembered Johnson as a fun-loving guy who would try anything, including taking a sewing class because he wanted to sew his daughter’s first communion dress.
“He was in it with all these old ladies,” said Dan Burke, another brother-in-law.
Brother John Johnson said their own father made his brother a pair of crocheted boots when he was only a baby, and so Johnson took up the same idea when he was a father.
“You've got to know the Johnsons,” John Johnson said. “They’ll try anything, nothing will stop them, and they’re not afraid of anything.”
Herbert Johnson and his sister Julie even went to clown school together at one time.
“He didn’t care,” John said. “He would have tried anything.”
Their father worked for the city in the Streets and Sanitation Department, John Johnson said, and their grandfathers were Chicago police officers.
John Johnson said his brother always knew he wanted to be a firefighter.
“He lived for it,” agreed McMahon.
“He died for it,” said John Johnson.
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- PHOTOS: Chicago firefighter deaths in the line of duty
- Capt. Herbert Johnson (left), with Fire Cmsr. Jose Santiago, at the ceremony where Johnson was made a captain this summer. Fire Department photo
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After giving the statement, McMahon asked the media for privacy for the family.
About a dozen emergency vehicles, including many from Johnson's engine company, followed his body from the Cook County medical examiner's office on its way to a south suburban funeral home.
Firefighters saluted as they drove away.
Speaking soon after the death of his long-time friend,
Fire Lt. Steve O'Malley said he had just finished his two-day stint at Engine 123 on the Southwest Side when Capt. "Herbie"’ Johnson came to take over for him Friday morning.
Their last conversation was brief -- what firefighters always say when they change shifts.
"I said you guys be safe," O'Malley said. "He said OK, Steve, see ya later. Have a good day."
Hours later, Johnson would die after he was hit by a flash of flame while fighting a house fire in the Gage Park neighborhood.
"He always had a smile on his face," said O'Malley, his voice shaking during a telephone interview after hearing the news from another firefighter. "He was one of the guys who walked in the room and had everybody laughing."
O'Malley was stationed at Engine 123, Tower Ladder 39 at 2215 W. 51st St. when the men switched shifts. Johnson was a newly made captain and had no regular station yet. He was also an instructor at the fire academy.
Johnson wasn't in his uniform yet when he entered the Engine 123 station Friday morning. "I just remember he had an old gray sweat shirt on. He said, 'Hey I'm in service, I'm ready to go,' and he started laughing," O'Malley said.
O'Malley said he and Johnson talked about their old stomping grounds, the St. Basil neighborhood where they both grew up near 58th and Winchester.
"I grew up with the whole family," said O’Malley, who had known Johnson for about 45 years after they met in grade school. Johnson had been a year ahead of him.
"What a big-time, huge loss to the department. He was loved by everybody," O'Malley said. "I just can't believe he’s gone."
The two men were promoted together over the summer -- O'Malley taking Johnson's former spot at Engine 123.
O'Malley said he has been a firefighter for 30 years and fought three fires just before being relieved by his old friend.
"We fight fires all the times, we had three that day. But now it hurts. Now it hurts," O'Malley said.
Family members and neighbors gathered on the sidewalk in front of Johnson's home Saturday morning, hugging one another and offering words of support. Chicago police officers are watching over the block with police vehicles parked in front of the family home and at the end of the block.
When asked about Johnson, a woman who was comforting a neighbor as they walked toward the family's home simply said, "He was the guy."
Also today, family members said Johnson spent more than a week in New York City after 9/11.
"9/11 happened and he wanted to be there," said McMahon. "He spent a long time there and kept going back for funerals of firefighters."
Brother John Johnson said his brother married his wife Susan in February 1984. He said they had a loving marriage and were very close.
"They were a family, a true family," he said.
Tim O'Brien, a fire union spokesman, called Johnson a prankster who attended every fundraiser for the Fire Department outside of work. A firefighter for 21 years, O'Brien knew Johnson for 20 of them.
"He was one of the guys, when you came on and he knew you were a young guy on the job, he started busting your chops," O'Brien said, cracking a smile.
"There wasn't a guy on this job who didn't get help by him somehow," O'Brien said. "He'd come out and help you out and bust your chops while doing it."
Off-duty firefighters at Engine Company 123 showed up to work today to help wash the rigs that will drive in the funeral procession.
Crew members shared stories about their beloved colleague, who was remembered as a true professional and lovable teacher.
"I never thought I'd cry in my life until this morning," said Engineer Mike Cummings, who worked alongside Johnson for more than a decade.
Cummings said firefighters in the same station are each other's "second family."
“He brought life here every day," Cummings said.
Cummings said Johnson showed up to work every day with a funny story, and he was always pitching in and taking on a new shift if somebody needed a day off.
It's not uncommon for a captain to respond to a fire the way Johnson did, alongside the five men on his crew, Cummings said. "He's the leader inside (the scene)."
Randy Acker and two other firefighters from Middleton, Wis., drove about three hours to the scene of the fire Saturday morning. Acker said his department had trained with Johnson, and considered him a good friend.
"Huge loss," Acker said, his voice breaking. "Herbie Johnson could walk into a room of 1,000 people and not know one person, and within minutes he will be everybody's best friend."
Acker said Johnson was committed to his job, recalling an injury he sustained a couple of years ago that sidelined him for months.
"He couldn't wait to get back," Acker said.
Retired firefighter Kevin McKendry, a longtime friend, said Johnson had been on furlough, what firefighters call vacation, and that Friday was his first day back.
Johnson played high school football at St. Rita, and also played softball, McKendry said. When he was younger Johnson went to clown school, and he also took a sewing class so he could sew his daughter's communion dress.
McKendry's son, Kevin M. McKendry, 29, said Johnson was like a second father to him.
Johnson said a prayer at the younger McKendry's wedding Aug. 18, and as was expected, he told a few jokes to make the crowd laugh.
“He said he wanted to make a million people laugh,” Kevin M. McKendry said. “He surpassed that a long time ago, though. He probably made like 10 million people laugh.”
“There’s just a certain spirit inside people that make them want to give back,” said Local 2 President Tom Ryan. “That was the essence of who he was, always looking to help, always looking to assist the less fortunate.”
Tower Ladder 39, on which Johnson served as a lieutenant before being promoted to captain, traveled along with Engine 123 as escort as Johnson's body was moved from the medical examiner’s office to Curley Funeral Home in Chicago Ridge.
A crowd of about 100 people gathered in the parking lot, where the Chicago Ridge and Merrionette Park firefighters were waiting with raised ladders, one flying an American flag.
Many saluted Johnson as he was taken into the funeral home, and others wept.
Family and close friends followed the body inside while others remained in the parking lot, comforting one another and sharing their memories of Johnson.
“He was so much fun and he was such a hard worker. He was the type of guy that led from the front,” said O’Brien. “If you worked with him, you worked harder because you didn’t want to be left in the dust. You wanted to work as hard as he did because he was that type of leader that led by example.”
“Every firefighter that worked with him wanted to be Herbie. You aspired to be more like him in every way of life,” O'Brien said.
Bill Bracken, another spokesman for the fire union, said Johnson was a St. Rita graduate and plans are to have a funeral there Thursday. A wake is to be Wednesday at the funeral home.
Tribune reporter Jeremy Gorner contributed.