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Looking back at a tragic downtown Aurora fire

1934 Woolworth Fire downtown Aurora. | Phocourtesy~AurorRegional Fire Museum

1934 Woolworth Fire in downtown Aurora. | Photo courtesy~Aurora Regional Fire Museum

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Updated: February 21, 2014 6:19AM

Eighty years ago, the city of Aurora was a much different place. A tragic event, though, was looming on the horizon for the firefighters of yesteryear.

On Jan. 11, 1934, the Aurora Fire Department suffered its most devastating loss in history, which still holds true to this day. Capt. Herbert L. Reiss, age 37, of No. 4 company; Capt. John Petersohn, age 48, of No. 5 Company; and Firefighter Charles Hoffman, age 35, of No. 5 Company all answered their last alarm when an exterior wall tumbled down on them at the Woolworth 5 and 10 cent store located at 19-21 Broadway St.

The alarm was issued at “11:30 o’clock” when citizens noticed flames shooting from the building. The Aurora Fire Department responded and began to battle the blaze using the “new gas masks” that were issued as a result of the departments’ first line of duty death, Capt. Barney Weiler, just five years earlier.

Firefighters made their way inside the structure and it appeared “that the blaze would prove of minor consequences.” Streams of water were played into the smoldering building from the Broadway and Water Street sides.

Finally, crews mounted a wooden stairway on the west side of the building and scaled adjoining roofs of the Alshuler Brothers and Goff stores, breaking through skylights, pouring tons of water into the center of the blaze.

Without warning flames quickly exploded thru the roof, causing it to collapse. That was immediately followed 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 part of history as they became trapped underneath the pile of rubble. Hose lines were now pinched off, as the building once again became a raging inferno.

Firefighters feverishly searched for their fallen comrades despite the growing intensity of the fire. Curious onlookers, who included off-duty police and firefighters, rushed in, clawing at the pile until their fingers were raw and bloody. The well organized battle now became a chaotic scene as the shriek of the dying and injured could be heard beneath the debris.

Soon the flames overwhelmed would-be rescuers, forcing them back. Confusion turned back into order as Fire Chief Lloyd Gramely took control and reinstated the attack on the fire and called for mutual aid from the Naperville, Elgin and Batavia fire departments.

The fire was eventually driven back so rescue efforts could continue.

First to be pulled out was Firefighter Barney Meisch. Next Robert “Curley” Bauman and Albert Burghoizer were found and taken to the hospital. The recovery of the fourth victim, Capt. Herbert Reiss, marked the second leader of No. 4 Company to die in the line of duty.

More victims, Capt. Carl Patterson and Firefighter John Kramp, were both given medical aid while the body of Capt. John Petersohn was carefully removed. He apparently was caught directly under the wall. It was a gruesome sight that brought on tears of both bystanders and the hardened firefighters.

The undertaking of hunting for the body of Firefighter Charles Hoffman was 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 Capt. 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 it is believed 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. Sadly, these acts came about with a harsh lesson learned. In the midst of their sorrow was realization of 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.

These fine men may be gone, but will never be forgotten. Rest in peace.

Lt. Jim Rhodes is assigned to Aurora Fire Department Engine 10 on the West Side and heads up Local 99’s Public Relations Committee. Contact him at

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