Fire and Water | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Fire and Water 

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The rain, indecisive all morning, asserted itself just as we got to Maxwell Street. My first visit was a soggy mess; droplets muddied the road and fell, not very faintly, over the living and the dead and the hubcaps and the bootleg Head & Shoulders and the platanos and the sneakers. Sheets of plastic paper soon covered everything, leaving the incongruous scene of vendors doing their game best to sell hidden items.

Rain, cars, and people clogged the small streets; on Halsted, we watched a fire truck vainly blare. A few minutes later, however, after other sirens rang in the distance, we actually saw the fire--or its signal. A brick building a half mile south was puffing black smoke like a giant, solitary steam engine. You'd think rain would dampen action like that, but it just couldn't: the smoke was exuberant and billowing. There seemed somehow too much of it: the building was close, but not that close.

Now it was raining seriously, almost drenchingly, Maxwell Street was closing down, but the fire continued to burn arrogantly in the downpour. When huge flames became visible over the tops of the intervening buildings, we decided to take a look.

Up close, nearing the corner of Morgan and Cullerton, we saw that the victim was a seven-story brick warehouse. Next to the building was a lot full of the wooden pallets used by produce purveyors at the nearby South Water Street market. The whole outfit took up about half a block, which itself abutted three or four pleasant blocks of Pilsen. An odd melange of Mexican families and quite artisty-looking artists had turned out to watch the show, along with one middle-aged couple whose matching windbreakers announced them as members of the South Suburban Police Pistol League. The rain relaxed suddenly. Fire fighters wandered back and forth, overseeing eight or nine ladder trucks; they each had their apparatus fully extended and were squirting the fire with some seriousness. Fire trucks were parked everywhere: a new arrival was being carefully backed around the stacked pallets to add some new waterpower.

The building itself was a big brick bonfire at this point. Smoke escaped through cracks in the masonry and poured out what used to be the roof As the flames hit something 'round about the sixth floor, the black smoke turned to huge billows of putrid yellow. We were glad we were upwind and couldn't smell it.

Each floor had a set of six large windows, each of which was divided into 50 or so panes of that opaque glass so favored by warehouse builders. Orange flame glowed behind intact panes. The ladder hoses, some of which were manned and some of which weren't, had blasted out most of the windows on the top three floors on the western face of the building; on the south side (we had a great view at the southwest corner), the fire fighters hadn't got that far, but were catching up. After pouring a high-pressure blast in a window for a while, the water controllers on the ground would move the spray over. As it passed it would blast the brick for a moment, and soon the street and sidewalk below the flames were covered with shattered bricks. Then the flow would continue to the next set of windows; in contrast to the brick, the glass seemed heroically resistant. But it would soon give way, and it was kind of fun watching pane after pane get absented. We watched the new truck's ladder extend with a man aboard the crows nest. He held up a second nozzle, aimed, and then began squirting. For a minute, it looked like Prince's guitar in the last scene of Purple Rain.

We headed around the block west of the building to get a different view; HQ for the fire was on the northwest corner. There was even more activity there: all the hoses looked like swirls of spaghetti, though it could have been that I was just hungry at that point. The fire fighters stomped around in black hip boots and slickers with green fluorescent stripes. That was the extent of the detailing for most of the ensembles; a few special positions, however, carry with them as perks lettering on the backs. "Media Affairs," read one; "Photographer," read another. There was a "Chaplain" present too, just in case. Our favorite was "Water Officer."

As we approached the northwest corner we saw, along with the drenching spray from the hoses and the zillions of shards of shattered bricks and glass on the ground, a new arrival--it was a huge window frame, which ordinarily would have held those 50 or so panes of glass. It had been knocked out of its jambs by the collapse of a section of roof. The frame, however, didn't hit the ground; a Dodge van was in the way.

All of a sudden, it was sunny. The roof continued to give off huge billows of black and yellow smoke. There was a brick outbuilding on top of it, and on top of that was a big water tower. On the side of the big water barrel a dancing vandal from some earlier time had spray-painted "DISCO HI." The water tower was actually aflame. One of the ladder guys was pouring tons of water on the thing, but it kept burning. The water just ran off the top of the structure and down its sides, running right over the flames. It was a rare and exciting confluence of two elements: they neither affected each other nor canceled each other out. For a moment, they existed, uneasily, together.

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