Jan Tchoryk was a veteran firefighter, a lieutenant, facing what many in his profession in Chicago have battled before: a stubborn fire in a high-rise on the city’s lakefront.
But his work would take a fateful turn Wednesday, as he became the second firefighter this week to lose his life on the job.
Known as “Jon,” Tchoryk, 55, died as he led a ladder crew in a staircase trying to put out the wind-driven blaze, becoming the Chicago Fire Department’s second line-of-duty death in as many days and being counted in what department leaders called an “unprecedented” loss. Two other firefighters were injured.
“To have two go down this way, back-to-back, it’s very hard on the members. It’s very hard on command. It’s just very hard,” CFD spokesman Larry Langford said.
Tchoryk was guiding the Tower Ladder 10 crew up the stairs as they responded to the 8 a.m. fire in a large apartment on the 27th floor of 1212 N. DuSable Lake Shore Drive, officials said.
A “mayday” alert went out after Tchoryk “went down” as he worked the scene, Fire Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt said at a press conference. Tchoryk had been on the stairs because the building’s elevators were not functioning and he collapsed on the 11th floor, Nance-Holt said.
It was not immediately clear what caused his death, she said. Langford said the fatal collapse was possibly the result of a “medical emergency.”
“The wind didn’t help us,” Nance-Holt said. “The wind drew the fire.” Tchoryk also served in Desert Storm and had a big family, including a rookie Chicago police officer son, she said.
“He was an active outdoorsman, a motorcyclist and a Navy veteran,” Nance-Holt said.
Tchoryk was taken to the building’s lobby after his collapse and rushed to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead, officials said.
A procession carried his body from the hospital to the Cook County medical examiner’s office, 2121 W. Harrison St., on Wednesday afternoon. Police cars blocked off Ogden Avenue intersections as fire trucks and other emergency vehicles drove in a line, their red, white and blue lights flashing.
Outside the building, an American flag hung from two outstretched fire truck ladders for the second time in two days. Somber ranks of police officers and firefighters waited once again for an ambulance carrying a fellow first-responder’s body.
The body of firefighter Jermaine Pelt, 49, had been brought to the same spot a day before, after Pelt died Tuesday in an extra-alarm West Pullman fire.
Blue ribbons put up weeks ago to mark the early March line-of-duty death of Chicago police Officer Andrés Mauricio Vásquez Lasso were still tied to the trees, poles and fences around the building.
Of the two firefighters injured in the Wednesday fire, one was released from the hospital and the other was transferred to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, where his condition was serious but not life-threatening, Langford said. Two civilians were also injured in the Wednesday fire.
Tchoryk was a “real likable guy that had a smile on his face most of the time,” Langford said. He spent most of his career on the Tower Ladder 10 team, becoming a “fixture” and a “fire family member” on the crew, he said.
“It’s like losing a close member of your family,” Langford said, noting firefighters often live together for days at a time.
Langford said he and his colleagues could not recall a time when two firefighters had died in separate back-to-back fires.
“It just doesn’t happen. But today, it did,” he said.
“I can’t tell you how this impacts us, losing two members in two days,” Nance-Holt said. “As I said yesterday, this job is dangerous. You never know if you’re coming home despite the training and the equipment that we can provide.”
Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson said in a tweet, “I am deeply saddened to hear Chicago lost another heroic first responder today, the second first responder lost in two days. It’s heartbreaking and our city mourns for those who put their lives on the line to protect us all.”
By 8:45 a.m., all firefighters at the scene were accounted for.
By 9:30 a.m., the fire had been put out and officials confirmed it was confined to one apartment on the 27th floor, which did not have sprinklers.
Ald. Timothy Knudsen, 43rd, said he would be working with the Gold Coast Neighborhood Association to find housing for people displaced by the fire.
The building, which was built in 1970, has 35 floors, according to online information.
Records from the Chicago Department of Buildings show that the Gold Coast high-rise was cited last year for allowing bushes and shrubbery to obstruct an exterior fire hose connection.
Late Wednesday afternoon, friend and fellow firefighter 1st District Relief Capt. Rich Savoia told the Tribune at Tower Ladder 10, 548 W. Division St., that he had known Tchoryk for 15 years or so.
They first met when Tchoryk worked for the CFD at O’Hare International Airport. The firefighter — who relatives said was proud of his Ukrainian heritage — “always had a good story” to share, Savoia said.
“He was the type of individual that never didn’t have a smile on his face. He always had a joke in his pocket to tell,” he said.
“He loved his family incessantly. He loved the Fire Department. Very happy person. He was infectious,” Savoia said. “He made everybody around him happy.”
Savoia said he got a “sinking, depressing, kind of sick feeling,” when he learned from fellow Fire Department members that Tchoryk was the firefighter who had been hospitalized after the morning fire.
“The Fire Department is a really close-knit family. And we deal with adversity. That’s what we do,” Savoia said. “We’re the people that show up in the worst time of your life and hold it together for you. And we’re pretty darn good at that. Pretty darn good at doing it for ourselves when things like this happen.”
Tchoryk, who was married with several children, was “very proud” of all of them, said Savoia. “I know for a fact that he was ecstatic for his son to become a police officer.”
Earlier Wednesday, Amelia Ramos and Hector Contreras, who have lived across the street from the Near North Side station for about 15 years, remembered him fondly. Children in their family would often visit the firefighters and bring them baked goods.
”The door was always open,” Contreras said. “Jon would always come down and say hello.”
Contreras knew Tchoryk as a “very kind person, very loving.”
Being the parents of a firefighter themselves, Ramos and Contreras said they appreciate the bravery of first responders who put themselves in danger to save others’ lives.
Contreras said he was appalled to learn of this tragic death so soon after Chicago firefighter Pelt died in Tuesday’s West Pullman fire. “It hurts,” he said.
Pelt served for 18 years as a member of Engine 75.
He had been called at 3:30 a.m. to a frame house in the 12000 block of South Wallace Street, where a fire destroyed the second floor and attic.
Officials said the fire spread to homes north and south of the building and Pelt, a Corliss High School graduate who attended Olive-Harvey College, went down on a hose line.
Pelt was born and raised in the West Pullman neighborhood, the same area where he devoted his adult life to help others as a firefighter, said his father, John Pelt.
The youngest of four sons, Jermaine was smart, ambitious and “the kindest person I’ve ever met,” his father said. He had walked his daughter down the aisle at her wedding last fall.