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Family: Fallen Firefighter ‘Was Always A Hero To Us’

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Herbert "Herbie" Johnson, covered in soot, talks with reporters at a 2006 fire scene. (CBS)

Herbert “Herbie” Johnson, covered in soot, talks with reporters at a 2006 fire scene. (CBS)

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Updated 11/03/12 – 5:45 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) – Family, friends and colleagues of a “larger than life” Chicago firefighter were mourning the loss of a man who they said “was always a hero to us.”

CBS 2’s Courtney Gousman reports Capt. Herbie Johnson died in the line of duty Friday evening, after fighting an extra-alarm fire in the Gage Park neighborhood. Johnson, 54, suffered fatal injuries while battling a fire at 2315 W. 50th Pl.

“Herbie Johnson – husband, father, brother, uncle and friend – died doing what he loved to do. He was always a hero to us, and now he is a hero for our city,” said Johnson’s brother-in-law, Dan McMahon, standing with Johnson’s widow and children. “Herbie never wanted glory or notoriety. Instead, all he wanted was to make Chicago a safer place for everyone who lives here. So, please, in Herbie’s honor, check your smoke detectors right now, and give your kids a hug.”

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Nancy Harty Reports

About 15 of Johnson’s relatives and friends stood with McMahon Saturday afternoon, many openly crying, their arms linked as they waited for Johnson’s body to be taken to a Chicago Ridge funeral home.

McMahon thanked Chicago residents for their support and prayers, and asked that they also pray for Ryan Woods, the second firefighter injured in Friday’s blaze, as well as members of the U.S. Marine Corps, and firefighters assisting with relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Black and purple bunting was hung over the doors of Johnson’s firehouse, and flags flew at half staff outside Saturday morning, while someone put a bouquet of white roses at the foot of a firefighter statue. Johnson’s fellow firefighters also rang a bell in his honor.

Fire Chief Jim McCann was a friend for more 30 years. He and Johnson worked together at Tower 39.

“Herbie was one of a kind, this guy. I mean, he’d come in here in the morning, smiling and laughing; and always had a joke,” McCann said. “For all the horsing around he did, once that bell went off he was one of the first guys in, leading the troops.”

Firefighter Mike Cummings said he worked with Johnson for 18 years and often spent more time with him than his own family.

Cummings said Johnson was not only really funny, but a great instructor – helping him and a number of firefighters prepare for exams.

Fire inspectors were at the house where Johnson suffered his fatal injuries on Saturday, trying to determine what caused the “flashover” that killed Johnson.

Outside a white cross for the fallen hero became a destination for fellow firefighters to show their respect.

Randy Acker, a firefighter from Middleton, Wisc., met Johnson about 15 years ago. He and two other Wisconsin firefighters jumped in a car Friday night and drove three hours to Chicago after Johnson’s daughter told Acker the sad news.

Acker and his colleagues wiped away tears as they stood in front of the charred house at 50th Place and Oakley Avenue, where Johnson sustained fatal injuries.

“Herbie Johnson can walk into a room of 1,000 people and not know one person, and he will be everybody’s best friend within minutes,” he said. “You cannot describe how this guy, he’s larger than life, he truly is. And that’s not just a saying, that is a truth.”

Among the others stopping at the site Saturday was another firefighter, one who grew up and was trained in the city, but works in the suburbs.

He laid flowers at a white cross bearing Johnson’s name, saying he had to pay respects to a fellow firefighter.

Johnson was working to put out flames inside the attic at the home on 50th Place, when fire officials believe a flashover occurred, surrounding the captain.

A “Mayday” call — indicating a firefighter is in distress – was issued around 5:30 p.m.

Johnson suffered severe burns in the fire, according to Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago said.

“Captain Johnson was working to put out a fire in the attic when he suffered injuries. He was quickly removed and transported to the University of Chicago Hospital,” Santiago said, choking back tears. “Captain Johnson suffered 2nd- and 3rd-degree burns and went into cardiac arrest.”

Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 President Tom Ryan said, “We lost a piece of our heart and our soul today. Herbie is everything the Chicago Fire Department is about.”

“He touched everybody that … ran into contact with him. He was a larger-than-life person,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said.

The cause of the fire was still under investigation as of Saturday morning. The families living in the home all made it out safely.

Johnson, a 33-year veteran of the department, served on Tower Ladder 39, which is housed less than half a mile from the fire.

He is survived by a wife, a daughter, and two sons. He also has siblings serving on the Chicago Police Department. He was promoted to the rank of captain over the summer.

Woods, the other firefighter hurt in the blaze, was listed in good condition Friday night.

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