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‘Hero’ firefighter cried with families, fellow firefighters

Updated: December 5, 2012 6:49AM



Herbie Johnson cried after the four sleeping children he tried to save from a burning apartment didn’t make it, the mother of two of them recalled.

“He didn’t really talk to me, but he was kind of sad because they was young,” said Vinika Harvest, who lost her 8-year-old son, Dontrell, and 9-year-old daughter, Tykia. Two cousins died, too, Lashawn Harris and 6-year-old Marlese Glenn.

“And he really got emotional about the 2-year-old, Lashawn,” Harvest said Saturday. “I saw tears in his eyes.”

Harvest remembered Johnson, then a lieutenant, as the big guy who carried her daughter out of the home. The mother had escaped the thick smoke with only her 3-year-old in her arms.

Now Johnson’s gone, Harvest was upset to learn. She didn’t realize the state gave him a Medal of Honor, its highest honor for a firefighter, for his bravery that terrible day over six years ago.

“He’s a hero,” Harvest said. “They risked their lives to go in there. That was a bad fire.”

Witnesses to Friday’s fire that claimed the life of now-Capt. Johnson say he was the first one in.

“This man was a hero,” said Rocio Castenada, 36, who lived on the first floor of the building in the 2300 block of West 50th Place, that burned Friday. “He threw himself completely into his work. His job was to save lives.”

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Johnson organized his colleagues to go to New York, said his friend Tom Taff, who’s run Bucks for Burn Camp for the last 15 years with Johnson’s fundraising help.

Johnson cooked in firehouses and attended firefighter funerals.

“He cried with the families,” Taff said. “Herbie was a very emotional guy.”

He raised money for 9/11 families through golf outings in Myrtle Beach, S.C., which led Johnson to firefighters in Charleston. After they lost nine firefighters in a terrible 2007 furniture store fire, he traveled there to console them.

Word of his death spread quickly among firefighters across the country. Charleston plans to send eight to the funeral; more are expected from Ohio and even New York where they’re digging out of Hurricane Sandy, Taff said.

Charleston Fire Department Assistant Chief Robert O’Donnell grew tight with Johnson during the golf outings. Johnson hosted a gang of them who traveled to see a Notre Dame football game and wanted to see Chicago.

“Herbie Johnson is all about the South Side. So when me and the guys from Charleston were going to Chicago so we can make our way to Notre Dame football, we thought we were going to Chicago,” O’Donnell said.

“We never saw the Sears Tower. We never saw the waterfront, the pier. We saw the South Side. Herbie Johnson said, ‘This is Chicago.’ ”

O’Donnell and his guys spent Friday night together, talking about Johnson.

On one of the last nights of their visit, Johnson remembered it was his wife’s birthday.

“At about 2 a.m., he brought us back to the house,” O’Donnell said.

“We walked into the door, up to his bedroom and opened the door. He said, ‘Honey, I just came to tell you happy birthday,’ and we all sang happy birthday to her. I don’t know what my wife would think if I did that, but Sue laughed at him, and he laughed, and he said, ‘Ok, well I’ll see you later.’ ”

“When we went to his house, we talked out front and the neighbors were on their porches and my friends from Charleston. ... Everybody knew Herbie on the South Side. I’m not kidding,” the chief said.

“And not like he was famous but just like everybody loved him.”

Meanwhile at Johnson’s tight-knit South Side neighborhood Saturday, retired elementary school teacher Trish O’Shea admired how Johnson used to speak to her students about fire prevention.

“He would make the kids promise to hold a fire drill at night and they almost all did it,” O’Shea said.

One of the kids escaped a fire in his Mount Greenwood home, partly because of Johnson’s instruction.

“When it was over,” she said, “he wrote Herbie a thank-you note that said that, ‘If you hadn’t taught me, my family could have died.’ ”

Taff didn’t know the reason why his friend ended up in a burning attic Friday night, other than this:

“Herbie would never expect his guys at the firehouse to do anything he wouldn’t do himself,” Taff said. “He watched his guys like they were his own children.

“The city lost a great fireman and a friend; most people don’t even know it.”

Contributing: Becky Schlikerman



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