By Michael Holtz and Jennifer Delgado
2:39 PM CST, November 8, 2012
Led by the slow march of a drum and pipe corps, a fire truck pulled up to a Southwest Side church today bearing the flag-draped casket of Capt. Herbert "Herbie" Johnson, a 32-year veteran who died battling an extra-alarm fire.
As firefighters in dress uniforms stood at attention under dark skies, Johnson's casket was brought into St. Rita of Cascia Shrine Chapel past his family and hundreds of friends and colleagues.
"He was a bully for love and life," the Rev. Thomas McCarthy said during the packed funeral. "And for us, his friends, we are so lucky.
"He was there when anyone needed him," he said. "To go into a burning building and not think of yourself, that was Herbie Johnson."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Johnson was "someone who was recognized for his bravery."
"Our city is richer, our city is greater because Herbie Johnson blessed us with his presence," he said.
Johnson's younger brother, John, a Chicago police officer, struggled through tears as he spoke. "Mom and dad, Tommy's home," he said, calling his brother by his middle name.
"He was a firefighter to the end," he said. "Herbie, I could not be prouder of you."
Johnson's sister, Julie, recounted funny and touching family stories of her brother.
"We knew we could count on our older brother," she said. "Our family has lost a real hero. That was where my brother was meant to be. . .Please continue to love him."
As the funeral drew to a close, the church's bells tolled and the casket was carried down the aisle and to the waiting fire truck. Rows of firefighters outside saluted as American and Chicago flags snapped in the wind.
Before the service, Crestwood Fire Chief Jon Bruce, 48, stood near a line of fire engines that stretched for nearly a block along Western Avenue near the church. "We're a brotherhood," he said.
"He will be missed by many but forgotten by none," said Lt. Rick Colby, 55, of the 19th battalion, who was assigned to the same fire engine as Johnson the day he died. "It's a somber day for all of us."
Looking around at the thousands of firefighters and police, Tom Munizzi said he was not surprised by the show of support.
"Everyone knew Herbie," said Munizzi, 54, also in the 19th battalion. "It shows you how much he was loved."
The somber crowd grew silent as the pipe and drum corps started playing. Purple ribbons were tied to the trees and light poles along the street in front of the church.
As Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined a line of saluting firefighters and police, Johnson's casket, draped in a Chicago flag, was lowered from the fire truck.
A second fire truck, draped in purple ribbons and flowers, bore Johnson's name and the lines, "Loved dearly by all and missed none the less. Captain Herbie Johnson, one of CFD's best."
A day earlier, firefighters crowded into the same Southwest Side church for the wake, some standing outside for nearly an hour.
"Anybody who does our job, we have a mutual respect and connection with," Barrington firefighter Kyle Racina, who never met Johnson, said as he stood outside the visitation. "He made the ultimate sacrifice for the job."
The visitation continued through the afternoon and into the evening as a steady stream of mourners waited in a line that sometimes stretched into the parking lot of the Catholic church at 7740 S. Western Ave. Cars, including police vehicles and firetrucks from all over the Chicago region, packed the neighboring streets, which were backed up with traffic for hours.
Johnson's brother, Ted, who also is a Chicago firefighter, said the tragedy still seems surreal. His family is struggling to deal with the loss but grateful for the outpouring of support from across the country, he said.
"I'm going to have to carry my brother's body to his grave," Johnson said on Wednesday. "But I'm going to have over 4,000 brothers and sisters right there with me."
Inside the chapel Wednesday, a line weaved in and out of the aisles as people chatted, cried and reminisced about Johnson and his large, tightknit family.
Pat Popek laughed as she recalled the time Johnson sported his grammar school basketball jersey at their 25th eighth-grade reunion.
"Believe me, it didn't fit him very well," she said with a smile. "But that was his personality."
A display of photos of Johnson — posing with his touch football team, spending time with his brothers and sisters, and marrying wife Susan — stood beside flowers arranged as firetrucks, footballs and a shamrock.
Johnson's widow greeted well-wishers as she stood next to the dark wooden casket holding the body of her husband who was in his dress uniform with a gold cross beside him. A medal for his heroism in the Fire Department also lay in the casket, which was adorned with pink roses.
"He would want us to celebrate his life, not his death," remarked Johnson's 18-year-old nephew, Thaddeus.
The eldest of eight, Johnson was always the leader in his family growing up, making sure his siblings did their homework and chores and stayed out of harm's way, said family friend John Jurcev, 78.
He enjoyed entertaining those around him and could find the good in a sad situation. Often, he spread his happiness with giant bearhugs, sometimes not realizing his own strength, Jurcev joked.
"He would be crushin' me, but I loved it," he said.
Relatives said they have received cards from schoolchildren from across Chicago. Some were on display inside the chapel.
Many of the notes offered prayers and support. That has meant a lot to Johnson's widow and three children, said Dan McMahon, Johnson's brother-in-law.
"They've helped their spirits get through this tragedy," he said.
Ted Johnson called his brother a great example for the city. It's a risk when firefighters leave for work every day, never knowing if they'll see their families again, he said.
"We'll bring him home," his brother said Wednesday. "It's a great send-off for a true hero."
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