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Hundreds turn out to pay respects to ‘fireman’s fireman’

Firefighters gather outside St. RitCasciShrine Chapel before Department walk through for fallen Chicago fire Department CaptaHerbert JohnsTower ladder Co.39 who

Firefighters gather outside St. Rita Cascia Shrine Chapel before a Department walk through for fallen Chicago fire Department Captain Herbert Johnson, Tower ladder Co.39 who died in the line of duty. November 7th 2012 I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 9, 2012 7:53PM

Shivering in the cold air, Jessica Flores stared in awe at the sea of men and women — many in blue uniforms and white gloves — standing on the grass Wednesday outside the South Side’s St. Rita of Cascia Shrine Chapel.

“This for one man, it just shows he must have done great things,” said Flores, 25, a passerby, taking pictures with her cell phone.

That man, like Flores’ father, was a Chicago firefighter. And Wednesday, hundreds of people — including firefighters, family and strangers — all came to pay their respects to Capt. Herbie Johnson, who died while battling a fire last week in the 2300 block of West 50th Place. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

The sight of so many brought a measure of relief to Johnson’s brother, Ted, also a Chicago firefighter.

“Tomorrow I’m going to have to carry my brother’s body to his grave but I’m going to have over 4,000 (firefighter) brothers and sisters right there with me,” Johnson told reporters at Wednesday’s wake. “I’m so lucky to have had the chance to do this job with my brother.”

Voices cracked and chins trembled on the faces of normally gruff firefighters as they talked about Herbie Johnson, a hugely popular veteran firefighter with a big, booming voice and a bigger smile.

“Herbie was a guy who had a smile on 24 hours a day, no matter whether he was off-duty or on-duty. He was just a great guy to be around,” said Illinois State Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitas, who knew Johnson for 30 years.

Gov. Pat Quinn, who stopped to talk to reporters, called Johnson one of the “greatest Illinois citizens” and a “fireman’s fireman.”

Inside the chapel, Johnson — wearing his dress uniform — was in an open casket, a spray of pink roses at his feet. A few feet away, his soot-smeared helmet sat on a pedestal. The chapel was filled with snapshots of a smiling Johnson with his family and friends. There also was a display from local school children who’d written letters of condolence to the Johnsons. One grade-schooler wrote: “If you’re blaming yourself, don’t because it was no one’s fault. P.S. For Halloween, I dressed like a firefighter.”

Outside, as darkness fell, Flores was looking at the swelling crowd and worrying about her own father’s safety.

“It’s scary,” she said. “My father’s been injured many times, falling through floors, had roofs fallen on him. We pray for him all the time. . . . Seeing this just makes you appreciate what they do for us.”

Johnson’s funeral mass is 11 a.m. Thursday in the Shrine Chapel at 7740 S. Western.

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