The recent deaths of two Chicago firefighters are stark reminders of the dangers and sacrifices of the job. And 49 years ago Thursday night, a different story of sacrifice began to unfold. The Chicago Fire Department was about to get an extra alarm call to an apartment fire in Lakeview. A lot of people were rescued that night, including a five year old boy. WGN’s Steve Sanders has his story.
His name is Rick Vega, a Cuban kid whose family lost everything under Fidel Castro, and came to Chicago as political refugees. On a snowy, November night, their lives were about to be turned upside down again- not by the heat of a communist revoluti, but by an apartment fire on this very night, nearly a half century ago.
“Ok, as you can see this beam here that’s going across,” says Rick Vega, “You could see the alligator charring that is still on here from the fire that was 49 years ago.”
November 15, 1963, one minute before midnight. Rick Vega was five years old, sound asleep in his family’s third floor apartment at 547 West Melrose. “Ya, where the lights are, that was our apartment. And that was the neighbors apartment that actually knocked on our door and woke us up and started the ball rolling.”
It was the dead of night, cold, snow on the ground. The closest firefighters were on Truck 44. They had just fought an extra alarm fire that included a rescue when they got the call; fire on Melrose- people trapped. Firefighter Eddie Groya, already exhausted, could have used a hot cup of coffee and a break. “Somebody says just a little guy inside, father, grandpa so who’s there? Me ! I was there and I ran and got inside there.”
“You couldn’t see in this hallway,” says Rick. His grandfather held him tightly as they felt their way down the stairs. But young Rick slipped away. “I don’t know if he couldn’t see me cause it was so dark and full of smoke, but at this point here, somebody grabs me, somebody grabs him and we go down the stairs. And the amount of heat and smoke that was coming up that stairwell, I could still remember it, I have a very very good memory.”
Eddie Groya picks up the story from there: “We got down kept going down & down. The little guy he went back in for a slipper. So I told the little guy Rick I says hold your hand with grandpa. Now when we get clear just remember you helped get grandpa and you saved his life.”
That scared five year old boy is now Chicago Fire Lieutenant Rick Vega, one of those calling the shots on Truck 44. I asked him what it means to be at this station on this fire truck. “Well it means everything to me. Really you could cut me and I’d bleed truck 44.” He graduated from the Fire Academy in the 80’s believing he’d be assigned to “his” truck-truck 44. It didn’t happen.
After a few years paying with dues with another engine company, learning how to risk his life to save others, he found his way back to the fire station. And decades passed before a former Captain put Vega’s and Groya’s stories together. “He said I remember an old man being upstairs,” says Rick. And I think Eddie Groya grabbed the old man and you. And later on I’m like you’re kiddin me?”
Vega and Groya reminisce at the firehouse while looking through old photos. “I remember you know getting grabbed and somebody had my grandfather by the arm too.” Eddie says, “That was me.” With the help of a commanding officer, Vega went to work searching for the handwritten journal of Truck 44’s rescues on the night of November 15, 1963. Rick says, “When I looked through this thing, I mean my hair stood up.”
Vega shows Groya the journal for the first time, and reads from it. “From the fire back in ’63 says here- 10PM firefighter Groya’s on watch.” Rick and Eddie share something else, something perhaps tightly woven in the grit of all firefighters; the desire to give back. “If I can mentor somebody a kid to become a firefighter in the city and maybe perhaps become a firefighter on truck 44 then it’s really gone full circle hasn’t it? “
Lt. Vega now has 30 years on the department and could retire tomorrow. Not a chance. At age 55, he’s hoping to make Captain of Truck 44. And Vega jokes that when the writers and producers of the TV series “Chicago Fire” get wind of our report, they may turn it into a future storyline. It would be a good one, even better, since it’s true.
Story by: Steve Sanders, Reporter / Pam Grimes, Producer / Mike D’Angelo, Photojournalist