CHICAGO — On Sept. 4, 1979, three young men joined the Chicago Fire Department ranks without having any idea that each of them in their own way would leave indelible marks on the job they loved.
After graduating from the fire academy, Jose Santiago, Dan Fabrizio and Steve Chikerotis were reunited on the “flying” Rescue Squad 2 — then the busiest firefighting team in the department, charged with making some of the scariest rescues their city could muster.
This month, two of them — Fabrizio and Chikerotis — retired from active duty after 35 years.
Guys who know them best say both men lived up to an important firehouse motto: Leave the job better than you found it.
“Along the way we touched a lot of lives,” said Santiago, who rose through ranks and now serves as fire commissioner, the top spot in the department.
“We saved a lot of people that we never saw again and don’t know how they turned out. … It’s like George Bailey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.' ” We touched a lot of people, and the world wouldn’t be the same if we weren’t there. The Fire Department wouldn’t be the same if Danny Fabrizio wasn’t there.”
Fabrizio, a battalion chief, twice served as president of the Chicago Fire Fighters Union, where he negotiated a handful of contracts and fought against powerful mayors to preserve fire truck staffing levels, employee benefits and make sure his firefighting brothers had the equipment they need to serve Chicago citizens and protect their own lives.
“It was a great learning experience and a chance to see a different side of the job and fight for our benefits, safer equipment and staffing,” said Fabrizio, who plans to serve the remaining two years of his term on the union board.
“During contract talks we met with Mayor Daley frequently, and he was mostly fair. But there were times when Daley would get all hissy and pissy, yelling about ‘Where are we going to get all this money?’ But we always seemed to come up with something to get a contract.”
Fabrizio, 57, took the Fire Department test at the urging of his older brother, Nick, a Fire Department paramedic who later became a firefighter, and got hired on just five months before walking the picket line during the historic 1980 firefighters strike.
“We were fighting for safety, manpower. We were running around with three guys on a fire truck. It was tough. I was a kid. I listened to the old timers. And they were mad,” he said. “The strike was important. It was about getting the manpower and equipment we need to serve people and make rescues.”
He doesn’t like to make too big of a deal about that or the lifesaving work he did on the street.
“I pulled a lot of people from a lot of places,” Fabrizio said. “I made a few rescues in my life, got a letter from the mayor once, stuff like that.”
His Squad 2 partner was Chikerotis, who rose to deputy district chief and became a writer who crafted real-life Squad 2 rescues into the compelling stories in his book, “Firefighters from the Heart." He also brought real Chicago authenticity to the movie “Backdraft” and most recently to NBC’s “Chicago Fire,” a show born from an idea he scribbled on a cocktail napkin. Chikerotis said most people might not understand Fabrizio’s modesty.
“Most of the things that guys like Danny did you don’t get awards for because nobody knows what you see every day,” said Chikerotis, whose adventures alongside Fabrizio inspired at least one rescue scene on “Chicago Fire.”
It happened in 1985. Chikerotis and Fabrizio were partnered up on the roof of a three-story apartment building on Milwaukee Avenue in a situation eerily similar to a fire that killed three firefighters months earlier.
The roof was “spongy,” a sure sign that the raging fire below had weakened the support beams. At one point, Chikerotis looked back and saw Fabrizio sinking into the failing roof.
“I had just stepped in a doorway. Danny was a half-step behind me. He’s taller than me, but he sank fast, and when I looked back he was about at my waist level. He grabbed me and I grabbed him. The whole roof just dropped,” Chikerotis said. “He was a half-step from dying.”
It was so close that when Chikerotis incorporated that moment into a "Chicago Fire" narrative, he couldn’t tell the story precisely as it happened because to do so “would have made it look fake.”
The real story didn’t end there, because saving their own lives wasn’t their only duty.
Fabrizio and Chikerotis, whom friends call “Chick,” went on to search the building, busting down doors and pulling people from apartments.
Their Squad 2 leader, Capt. Bill Burns, a big John Wayne-looking guy with a booming voice, screamed their names over the radio and ran up a set of stairs until he was stopped by a sea of flames.
“He thought we died,” Chikerotis said. “When I answered to tell him we were doing search and rescue on the second floor he said, ‘Carry on’ and then just collapsed out of relief that we made it.”
In some ways, knowing that the people in that building — and countless other folks stuck in dangerous situations — survived because Squad 2 came running despite the risk is the thing that best defines them.
“That makes it hard to leave, and I’m sure Danny’s going through all those feelings now,” Chikerotis said. “I know I was going through it a couple days ago.”
Chikerotis scheduled his last shift on Veterans Day in an attempt to leave the job with the least amount of fanfare possible because he hates sappy goodbyes and doesn’t plan to leave Chicago.
But Santiago, as his commanding officer, wasn’t about to let him get away with it.
“He didn’t tell anybody and tried to sneak out. But we had our spies and kept track of his days,” Santiago said. “So, a bunch of us snuck up on him at his last roll call and were like, ‘Hey, dude. Congrats.'”
On Saturday, Fabrizio’s firefighting brothers were scheduled to celebrate his last roll call in style by crossing two fire rescue ladders over the entrance to the Truck 19 firehouse — home of the “Warriors of West Town.”
Fire Commissioner Santiago said he planned to show up to give his old Squad 2 pal “a big kiss” goodbye.
As things turned out, that smooch would have to wait.
An early morning “2-11” fire at a single-room occupancy hotel at Jackson and Sacramento sent Fabrizio sprinting to his “buggy” and racing to the scene.
“It was fabulous,” he said. “Anytime you can help somebody, that’s what we’re here for. That’s what we live for. That’s why you want to be a firefighter.”
What he’ll miss most, of course, is working with people who consider firefighting a calling the way he does.
“I’ve been lucky to be around people who have a real passion for the job. Anywhere you go, no matter what you ask them to do, they’re willing to do it,” he said. “It was that way the moment I started, and it’s that way now.”
And if he had his way there’s no chance he'd quit, but he’s in a tough spot.
“I’m an old fart,” Fabrizio said. “I feel like my body isn’t as strong as it was at one time. I feel the aches and pains. I have bronchitis. I got on the job in a time when we didn’t wear masks and used to go into a fire with our nose in our coats. I’m paying for it now. So, it’s time to go.”
Fabrizio, like Chikerotis, said what makes easing into retirement a bit easier is that he’s not planning to disappear to Florida like a lot guys on the job do.
“You know I might try to escape the cold, but I’ll never move,” he said. “I’m always gonna be a Chicago guy. Always."
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