Shouting for help as he cradled the body of a dying girl in the fourth-floor window of a burning building, John Steinmetz was captured in an iconic 1979 Sun-Times photo that embodied the bravery of Chicago’s firefighters.
The mustache has since grayed, and his face now wears a few wrinkles, but Capt. Steinmetz was unmistakably still the same strong, wiry man Sunday morning when he showed up for the final shift of his 34-year career at his Edgewater firehouse.
But more than three decades fighting fires could not prepare the 63-year-old for the surprise waiting at his final roll call: his two sons, Eric and Chris, standing at attention with the Engine 70 crew Steinmetz usually commands.
In an exception to the rule that prevents family members working the same shift together, the proud brothers — who work as a paramedic and a firefighter on the South Side — were assigned to work Sunday at their father’s station as part of a moving tribute that saw dozens of firefighters honor the respected veteran.
“It’s been a privilege,” a visibly touched Steinmetz told them.
The captain had been on the job just two years when he was named Firefighter of the Year for his heroism at the apartment arson that killed six on Dec. 29, 1979.
Video footage of the blaze at 5406 N. Winthrop played during Sunday’s tribute shows Steinmetz pass a child from the window to firefighters on a ladder, then repeatedly go back into the smoke-filled apartment to try to rescue more victims. Photos of the rescue were printed in newspapers around the world.
For Sunday’s ceremony, colleagues nickle-plated and mounted Steinmetz’s “Chicago bar” — a crowbar he carried for luck to every fire and accident scene — as a retirement gift.
Engineer Jim Bragado said he had some awkward moments explaining where the bar was after “borrowing” it for the ceremony.
“He carried that thing everywhere like a security blanket,” Bragado said as friends shared fond memories of Steinmetz’s career.
“It’s not going on the living room wall!” joked Steinmetz’s wife, Peggy, a nurse.