Honoring firefighter Walter Watroba

Although four decades have passed since firefighter Walter Watroba sacrificed his life while protecting the city from a fire on the West Side, his memory is honored every day by Engine Co. 13 at 259 N. Columbus Dr.

The fire station next to the Aqua Tower dedicated a bronze plaque to Watroba during a touching ceremony on Nov. 22. Among the 100+ attendees who paid their respects were CFD Captain John Jakubec, CFD Chief Jeffrey Lyle, Fire Fighters Union Local 2 President Thomas Ryan, 19th Ward Alderman Matt O’Shea, Engine Co. 13 gardener David Sudler and several members of Watroba’s family.

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The extended family of Walter Watroba

Engraved with a description of Watroba’s heroic struggle, the plaque complements a bronze sculpture created in his name and dedicated to all fallen firefighters in a memorial garden at the front of the station.

Retired Engine Co. 13 Captain George Rabilea was a driving force behind the memorial’s construction.

“We’ve seen people from all over the world coming to look at the memorial and to take pictures, and it’s time that we have something there to let them know what it’s there for,” he explained.

Before recounting Watroba’s struggle in his opening remarks, Alderman O’Shea compared the firefighter to another great American hero. “It is fitting that we should honor Walter on the same day that John F. Kennedy lost his life,” he said.

Watroba became trapped underneath a coal conveyor that had collapsed upon him as he fought a multiple-alarm fire inside the former Commonwealth Edison generating station at 1111 W. Cermak Rd. in 1976. He remained conscious for most of the time that paramedics attempted to free his right leg from the machinery, O’Shea explained.

After struggling for more than seven hours, they decided that amputation was his only hope for survival. The procedure took place in darkness while Watroba was still conscious.

During this time, the Alderman explained, Watroba’s greatest concern was for his fellow firefighters. “Is everyone alright?” he asked.

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Retired Engine Co. 13 Captain George Rabilea

Karen Wysocki, the eldest of Watroba’s three daughters, was among the family members in attendance. Wysocki remembers her father as a dedicated family man who “always had some exciting stories.”

On the morning that her father lost his life, she was a 15-year-old girl getting ready for high school. She learned of the tragedy when her grandmother called to say that Watroba’s name had been mentioned in a report about a large fire that she heard on the radio.

“It’s just a really touching tribute that they have that outside,” she continued, “and displayed so beautifully, too.”

The ceremony ended with a meal donated by a number of local restaurants and vendors, but not before all who were present honored the sacrifice of several other firefighters. Captain Jakubec and Chief Lyle announced the names of those who had made the ultimate sacrifice, and a bell was rung in memory of each one.

— Daniel Patton

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