Updated 11/08/12 – 4:54 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — Hundreds of Chicago area firefighters and police officers packed a South Side chapel on Thursday to say a final farewell to Chicago Fire Capt. Herbert “Herbie” Johnson, who was killed in the line of duty last week.
CBS 2’s Suzanne Le Mignot reports more than 1,000 firefighters and police officers from Chicago, the suburbs and as far away as Washington, D.C., and Canada gathered on the front lawn of St. Rita of Cascia Shrine Chapel, saluting as Johnson’s casket was carried to the chapel on Fire Engine 123, the same engine on which he was working the night he died.
Johnson’s gear was perched on the front of the fire engine under black and purple bunting.
WBBM Newsradio’s Mike Krauser reports Johnson’s colleagues hugged each other, and offered support to Johnson’s family and friends, as they gathered for one final goodbye to the man described by everyone who knew him as “larger than life.”
Johnson, 54, was a 32-year veteran of the Fire Department. He died last Friday, while fitting a fire in the attic of a home in the Gage Park neighborhood. He won a department medal of honor for bravery, and traveled to New York to assist after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Mike Krauser Reports
“He was just a master fireman,” said Tom Ryan, president of Chicago Firefighters Local 2. “He also brought that other something special to the table—the ability to make you laugh in some of the worst situations you are ever going to face. He is going to be missed terribly.”
“He was the life of the fire department,” said firefighter John Jakuec. “Heaven is going to have a lot of fun with him.”
Firefighter Kirkland Flowers said: “We are losing a real, real great, unbelievable, lovable fireman.”
Those who spoke inside the funeral mass talked of Johnson’s laughter, and love of life.
“I know that if Herbie was here right now, he would whisper to me ‘It sucks to be you, Jose,’” Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago said.
Herbie’s brother John, a fellow firefighter, explained the father of three’s sense of humor, by describing how he would have started his own eulogy.
“He would have said, ‘I knew I could get you all in one place,’ and then he’d say, ‘Let’s get this over with, and let’s have a beer,’” John Johnson said.
Rev. Thomas McCarthy, who led the funeral mass, also remembered Johnson’s love for jokes.
“One of the best I heard was just at Halloween,” he said. “Herbie was there and said ‘Aunt Sue, she parked her car in the tree,’ and Friday night I looked up and what was in the tree? A broom!”
During the laughter, there were times of tears.
John Johnson choked back tears as he honored his fallen brother.
“Herbie, I could not be prouder of you, dying for what you loved, doing what you loved, and doing it for the city of Chicago. Most of all, I am even prouder to call you my brother,” he said.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, “Our city is richer, our city is greater because Herbie Johnson blessed us with his presence.”
Santiago also remembered Johnson’s dedication to the job.
“Good firefighters do get hurt, because they will go in. And good firefighters will take a chance to save a life. Herbie was a good firefighter. Herbie was a great firefighter,” he said.
Ryan said he would be hard-pressed to find someone who loved the job more than Herbie.
“Brother Johnson was living proof that there is still good in this world,” Ryan said.
Following the funeral, a long procession of fire trucks and police cars escorted Johnson’s body to Mt. Olivet Cemetery, where he was buried.
When Johnson’s casket was driven to the cemetery for burial it passed by a Beverly neighborhood tavern, the Cork & Kerry, where Johnson liked to go after the end of his shift.
According to friends, he’d say, “Let’s go get a bowl of popcorn.”
On Thursday night, a bowl and a single beer were set out at his regular stool at the bar. The stool was draped with an American flag.
“He was the life of the party. Heaven’s going to have a lot of fun with him up there,” firefighter Jake Jakubec said.