‘Unauthorized work' being done at location of fatal warehouse fire

CHICAGO (Sun-Times Media Wire) - Daniel Capuano was a dedicated firefighter who loved his job — and loved his family more. He was a light-hearted guy who loved to crack jokes, and a dad who would take any opportunity to talk about his kids.

But on Monday, Capuano, 42, a 15-year veteran, was killed while battling a blaze at a vacant warehouse in the South Chicago neighborhood, where alleged “unauthorized work” was being done.

He left behind a wife and three children.

“He was a great guy and a great dad, you know, and a very dedicated fireman. You can pretty much sum it up right there with Dan,” said firefighter Mike O’Connell, among dozens of his fellow brethren from across the city who filed through Capuano’s firehouse in the Avalon Park neighborhood on the South Side on Monday to pay their respects.

“It’s a very sad day,” O’Connell said, his head down as he stood before the firehouse at 79th and South Chicago Avenue, where purple and black bunting hung from the roof over bright red garage doors, and flags of the city of Chicago and its Fire Department fluttered at half-staff on two flagpoles.

Officials said Capuano, assigned to Tower Ladder 34, fell through an elevator shaft at the three-story warehouse in the 9200 block of South Baltimore, after firefighters responded to a fire at the building just before 3 a.m. Monday. He was searching through heavy smoke on the second floor of the building when he fell down the shaft and into the basement.

“We hope you can keep the Capuano family in your prayers and the department members who worked with him. This is devastating to the family,” Chicago Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago told reporters.

“Very hard as a department — you know how we are close in fire departments, so we’ll make our way through it,” Santiago said.

The Baltimore street warehouse was under construction, and an emergency alert had been issued because there were holes in the floor, officials said. The “mayday” call — signaling a firefighter in distress — went out at 2:56 a.m.

The cause of the fire, which was extinguished by 3:55 a.m., remains under investigation. But Late Monday, the city Department of Buildings disclosed that “unauthorized work” was being performed at the warehouse.

Work being conducted without a permit included complete removal of the elevator and other structural alterations, spokeswoman Mimi Simon said.

“The building owner did not obtain the proper building permits for the work being performed, which would have included a permit for the removal or demolition of a conveyance device (e.g. an elevator),” Simon said.

“When such a permit is issued, the city completes an elevator inspection to ensure it has been safely and properly decommissioned.”

After a full inspection Monday, the department expected to refer violations to the Cook County Circuit Court for prosecution, Simon said.

Records show that the department issued a so-called “easy permit” on Sept. 11 authorizing a Fred Baker to: install three doors; patch/repair of 80 square feet of drywall; patch concrete a window sill; install 400 square feet of tile and install four glass-block windows.

Two electrical permits also were issued on Sept. 4 and Sept. 10 that authorized installation of lights, outlets and switches.

Baker’s name is listed on the permit application. But Simon said current ownership was still being confirmed.

Throughout the day on Monday, firefighters — and family members of firefighters — came to Capuano’s station, solemnly milling in and out, some visibly shaken. Several members of his firehouse family were too upset to talk about the tragedy.

“Now’s not a good time,” a couple of them said as they stood just inside the firehouse doors.

But some of the visiting brethren shared memories of their colleague.

“I worked with Dan quite often. He was a real nice guy. A real funny guy who liked to crack jokes . . . A real family man, you know? He always talked about his wife and his kids,” said firefighter Shane Lundy-Bey, a 19-year veteran with Engine 122, a sister firehouse east of Capuano’s on 79th Street.

“I actually bought a car from him not too long ago, a Ford Thunderbird. It was a nice car, too,” Lundy-Bey said, drifting away in memory. “Yeah, he was a great guy. He’s our brother. He’s going to be dearly missed by all of us. That’s why you see so many firefighters filing in and out of here. It’s like we’re losing a real family member. We eat together. We spend 24 hours a day in this place together. And I know he died doing what he loved to do, because he truly loved this job.”

Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 President Thomas Ryan posted on the union’s website that a fund has been set up for Capuano’s family, and anyone wishing to donate can go here. Wake and funeral arrangements were pending, Ryan said.

Capuano’s wife, Julie Capuano, is a Chicago Public Schools teacher at Nathan Davis Elementary in Brighton Park. At the family’s tidy brick bungalow in Mount Greenwood — traditionally home to a large population of the city’s police and firefighters — a police patrol car kept watch outside. At the family’s request, the lone officer shooed away reporters.

Late Monday afternoon, fire department officials were seen arriving at the Capuano house, where grim-faced family and friends were going in or coming out.

Down the street from the home, a city flag at a firehouse on 111th Street also flew at half-staff, and a few miles down 111th Street, at a Mount Greenwood gas station, the marquee read: “Rest In Peace Daniel Capuano.”

Capuano is the fourth firefighter to be killed in the line of duty in the past five years. On Nov. 2, Capt. Herbert Johnson, 54, a 32-year veteran, died after he and another firefighter were injured in a blaze at a home in the Gage Park neighborhood. On Dec. 22, 2010, two firefighters, Corey Ankum and Edward Stringer, were killed battling a blaze when a wall collapsed at an abandoned South Shore laundry.

“Chicago has lost one of its bravest,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement.

“As a 15-year veteran, Dan spent his career putting the safety of others ahead of his own. He made the ultimate sacrifice so Chicago’s residents could be safe,” Emanuel said. “For that, there are no words that can truly express our sorrow for his loss, nor our gratitude for his service and sacrifice. The thoughts and prayers of a grateful city are with Dan, his family, and his fellow firefighters at this difficult time.”

The fire commissioner said Capuano had a partner “right next to him” when he fell, and “they were able to remove him quickly and get him on the ambulance.” He was taken to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, where he was pronounced dead at 4:25 a.m.

One of the firefighters who stopped by Capuano’s firehouse felt the family’s pain even more acutely. Kevin McGovern, who is stationed at a firehouse nearby and helped battle the fire early Monday, had lost his own firefighter father in the line of duty.

“As a firefighter who lost my father, I feel their grief. I understand what the kids are going through, what the family’s going through. And I feel sorry for them — deeply, deeply sorry for them,” McGovern said, shaking his head.

“It’s a shock and a tragedy. God rest his soul, and Godspeed to his family,” he said.

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