Aurora's Woolworth Fire Memorial - dedicated June of 2006
“Memorials are a way we make promises to the future about the past”
-- author unknown
Aurora’s Tragic Woolworth Store Fire
Compiled from historical sources by Aurora firefighter Jim Rhodes
On January 11, 1934 the Aurora Fire Department suffered its most devastating loss in history. Three firefighters: Captain Herbert L. Reiss, age 37 of No. 4 company, Captain John Petersohn, age 48 of No. 5 Company, and Firefighter Charles Hoffman age 35 of No. 5 Company answered their last alarm when an exterior wall tumbled down on them at the Woolworth 5 & 10 store located at 19 - 21 Broadway Street.
The alarm was issued at “11:30 o’clock” when many citizens noticed flames and smoke coming from the three story structure. The entire Aurora Fire Department responded and began to battle the blaze with several firefighters using the “new gas masks” that were issued as a result of the departments’ first line of duty death, Captain Barney Weiler just five years earlier. Firefighters made their way inside the structure and it appeared for a matter of almost an hour “that the blaze would prove of minor consequences”. Streams of water were played in the smoldering interior of the building from the Broadway and Water Street sides. Finally crews mounted a wooden stairway on the west side of the building and scaled to adjoining roofs of the Alshuler Brothers and Goff store buildings, breaking through skylights , pouring tons of water into the center of the blaze.
Without warning flames quickly licked their way up thru the roof which collapsed, followed almost immediately by a muffled blast that blew out the entire front of the building. Within the blink of an eye the Aurora Fire Department would forever be changed. Caught beneath a barrage of falling steel, brick and stone, three firefighters would become impregnated in history as they became trapped underneath the pile of ruble. Hoselines were now pinched off as the building once again became an enraging inferno.
For over a half hour firefighters that had escaped the collapsed feverishly searched for their fall comrades despite the roaring blazes growing intensity. Curious onlookers which included off duty police and firefighters rushed in clawing at the pile until their fingers were raw and bloody. The fire which was a well organized battle had now become a chaotic scene as the shriek of the dying and injured were mingled with the cries of suffering could be heard of their brothers.
Soon the flames became overwhelming for the would-be rescuers forcing them back into the street. Confusion was turned into order as Fire Chief Lloyd Gramely took control and reinstated the attack on the fire. Chief Gramely then requested Michael Weiler, brother of fallen firefighter Barney Weiler, to call for mutual aid of the Naperville, Elgin and Batavia fire departments.
With the arrival of the mutual aid departments the fire was driven back so the rescue efforts could be continued. First to be pulled out was Firefighters Barney Meisch. Next Robert “Curley” Bauman with a crushed foot and Albert Burghoizer who was nearly crushed to death were put on stretchers and taken to the hospital. The recovery of the fourth victim Captain Herbert Reiss marked the second leader of No. 4 Company to die in the line of duty.
More victims, Captain Carl Patterson who sustained a severely smashed finger and Firefighter John Kramp with conflicting reports sustained either an injured finger or was overcome by smoke, were both given medical aid. The body of Captain John Petersohn of No. 5 Company was carefully removed. He apparently was caught directly under the wall. It was a gruesome sight which brought on tears of both bystanders and the hardened firefighters.
The undertaking of hunting for the body of Firefighter Charles Hoffman proved to be difficult at best. Finding only his “torch” but no trace of him brought on a dismal feeling that he may never be properly laid to rest. Chief Gramley said that he had just left Captain Petersohn and Firefighter Hoffman at the north entrance to the building and stepped into the Alshuler Brothers doorway when the collapse occurred. Petersohn’s body was thrown onto the sidewalk and believes that Hoffman re-entered the building and was buried in the basement. Hoffman’s body would not be recovered until later that night.
Numerous cases of bravery would come out of the catastrophe that fateful January day. Civilians and firefighters alike banded together and all became what we would define as heroes. Sadly these acts came about with a harsh lesson learned in the midst of their sorrow was that the mistake that was made with the reduction of the fire and police departments. The cuts were made in the interest of homeowners and other taxpayers with very few being opposed to the idea. Regret was felt at the time for the men that were laid off and salaries cut, but fears were composed by thoughts that all city departments had to be reduced and pay lowered, so that the city might run with less income.
Shortly after the disastrous blaze, the following statement was made; “[The City of Aurora's] disposition [is] to restore, no matter what comes, the personnel of departments upon which depend protection of lives and property. We will not excuse ourselves for what was done, though necessity was our driver. We are resolved that we will have sufficient firemen and policemen. That they shall be paid a fair wage, no matter what else we have to curtail, playgrounds, parks, public services. If we can’t afford to guard what we have and provide our protectors with a fighting chance, we can’t afford anything. We are not yet poor, neither pocketbook nor spirit.”
Personal Information about
those killed in the line of duty.
Born in Bloomingdale, IL, February 5, 1889 and had resided in Aurora for more than 43 years. He entered the Aurora Fire Department January 20, 1911 and was assigned to No. 6 Hook and Ladder Company. He resigned from the department October 30, 1917 returning January 1, 1923 and being assigned to No. 1 Company. He was promoted to Lieutenant of No. 5 Company May 1, 1926 and to Captain of No. 5 Company September 1, 1931. His service totaled about 16 years. He was survived by his wife, one daughter, two sons, a sister and three brothers.
Herbert L. Reiss
Born in Aurora, IL on November 6, 1895. He entered the Aurora Fire Department with No, 6 Hook and Ladder Company on August 28, 1916. He took a furlough from July 18, 1918 to August 16, 1918 and on his return was transferred to No. 1 Company. He was promoted to Lieutenant of No. 4 Company July 15, 1924 and to Captain of No. 4 Company September 1, 1929. Captain Reiss was the second Captain of No. 4 Company to die in the line of duty. He was survived by wife, two daughters, one son, mother, two brothers and four sisters.
Born in Aurora IL, August 8, 1893 and resided here all of his life. He entered the Aurora Fire Department on May 15, 1923 and was assigned to No. 5 Company until the time of his death. Reiss just returned to work two weeks earlier after recovering from an operation. He was survived by his wife, one son, mother, three sisters, and two brothers.