Firefighter Joseph A. Hitz

September 22, 1981

Written by 100Clubillinois

On September 22, 1981, two Chicago firefighters died in the line of duty during a fire at the Willoughby Tower on Michigan Avenue. Joseph Hitz, a veteran firefighter and snorkel truck driver with Hook and Ladder 1, and Craig McShane, a rookie firefighter with Engine 42, fell to their deaths down an open elevator shaft from the 25th floor to an elevator that was stopped sixteen floors below.

To reach the fire on the 25th floor, Hitz, McShane, and four other firefighters had taken an elevator to the 24th floor of the building. They attempted to reach the 25th floor by stairs, but were forced to backtrack when they found that the door to the 25th floor was locked, but still cool to the touch. The firefighters returned to the elevator and upon reaching the 25th floor, the elevator doors jammed shut. After a fifteen minute delay, the firefighters were able to open the elevator doors and reach the smoke-filled corridor on the 25th floor.

The firefighters began crawling along the floor to find an escape without realizing that there was an open and empty elevator shaft directly across from the elevator they had exited. The fire had started in boxes of paper in this elevator and the elevator had become disconnected from its cables and fell sixteen floors before the friction-system brakes were activated. Unbeknownst to the other firefighters, Hitz fell through this open elevator shaft shortly after the firefighters exited the other elevator.

Once the five remaining firefighters had successfully escaped the heat and smoke by crawling into an open office and exiting onto the fire escape, they realized that Hitz was missing. As McShane was the only firefighter who still had oxygen in his SCBA tank, he went back into the smoke-filled hallway to look for Hitz, but he, too, fell down the open elevator shaft.

After the fire was extinguished, search and rescue firefighters discovered the bodies of Hitz and McShane in the elevator shaft. Six other firefighters, including the four who had accompanied Hitz and McShane, were hospitalized for burns and smoke inhalation.

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