Inspiration: The Gift of Life

As he plucked the unconscious child from the blazing inferno, little did he know that his gift of life would be repaid 20 years later.

Photo by Doug Baines.

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"I knew the chances of us surviving if we went down that hall were slim … but I just couldn’t walk away,” says Jacob. Photo by Doug Baines.

It was a typical hot and sweltering Chicago day in August 1972 when the emergency call came over the radio for Jacob’s firefighting crew to handle a small fire that had broken out in a downtown apartment building. They hustled as always to make it in record time. But even in the few minutes it took them to weave through the afternoon traffic, the small fire had grown to engulf the entire building. “It was already looking pretty hopeless when we got there,” says Jacob. By the time the 24-year-old fireman arrived on the scene most of the hundred or so residents had already made it out of the blazing seven-story inferno.

But the firefighters had to be sure everyone was safe. So Jacob and his partners hurriedly entered the building clad in their fire-retardant gear, busting down doors and checking for any remaining trapped tenants. “It was a real old building in pretty bad shape,” recalls Jacob. “Whole floors were crumbling faster than we could even get to them.”

The roaring fire had started on the fifth floor before spreading throughout the rest of the building. Ladders enabled the firefighters to rescue residents on the top floors, but the fifth floor was too far gone to risk entering. They heard no screams or sounds, but they had no way of knowing without a physical check if there was anyone left on the fifth floor clinging to life. “It was unreasonable for any firefighters to enter the fifth floor at that point,” says Jacob. “But I had a nagging feeling that there was still someone left inside.” Finally ground personnel, who were busy taking names and trying to account for everyone in the building, radioed the order to evacuate. “It was way past the point of recklessness to be in there,” recalls Jacob. “And they assured us everyone was out.”

But suddenly, as Jacob and his colleagues came out of the front of the building, a young, frantic woman came running up to them yelling at the top of her lungs, “My baby, where is my Kris?”

Jacob’s instincts had been correct. The woman who lived in Apartment 529 explained that she had left her 7-year-old son, Kris, alone for just a few minutes while she went down the street for some groceries. And ground personnel could not account for Kris anywhere. “I knew he was still in there,” says Jacob “I could just feel it. And the fact that I hadn’t heard him screaming or calling out signaled to me he was either in shock or had passed out from smoke inhalation. Either way I knew we didn’t have time to waste.”

Jacob and another firefighter made their way back up to the fifth floor while firefighters outside used ladders to look for any signs of life. Thick black smoke poured out of the windows and through the hallways. The heat inside had become so intense that it was about to overwhelm the firefighters’ protective clothing.
By the time Jacob and his partner made it up to the fifth floor the fire had grown so fierce, neither could see more than a few feet in front of them. Apartment 529 was engulfed in flames at the other end of the hall, and most of the floor was already impassable. “My partner looked at me and gave me the thumbs-down,” says Jacob. “As a fireman I knew he was right. The chances of us surviving if we went down that hall were slim, let alone anyone finding that boy. I had been in situations like that before where I had to accept the loss, and I dealt with it. But I just kept seeing that mother’s face in my head. I just couldn’t walk away from this one.”

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