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From high school dropout to top of the Fire Department ladder

Chicago new Fire Commissiner Jose Santiago during interview City Hall Monday February 20 2012. | John H. White~Chicago Sun-Times.

Chicago new Fire Commissiner Jose Santiago, during interview at City Hall, Monday, February 20, 2012. | John H. White~Chicago Sun-Times.

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Updated: March 22, 2012 8:12AM

Jose Santiago is the only son of a working-class single mom and a father who was “never around.” He dropped out of Tuley High School at 17 to join the Marines and escape the Humboldt Park street gangs that had swallowed up so many of his friends.

The tears that his mother shed in 1972 when Santiago made that painful decision have now been replaced by his own tears of pride and remorse.

The kid who did what he had to do survive the mean streets is Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s choice to become Chicago’s new $202,728-a-year fire commissioner, replacing Robert Hoff, one of the most decorated firefighters in the city’s history.

The fact that his “unbelievable mother” — who worked days in the kitchen at Precious Blood Catholic school and nights at a local convent — did not live long enough to see that proud moment pains Santiago.

His eyes well with tears at the mention of his mother. He plans to pay a special visit to her grave after the City Council confirms his appointment.

“A bunch of my friends that I knew from school were all dead [or] dying. It was just a matter of time. ...I had to get out of the neighborhood. It would give me a chance. ...If you knew Humboldt Park, you’d better get out of that neighborhood or you’re gonna become a statistic,” Santiago, 56, recalled Monday.

“I hung out with the gangs. ...If you were [the child of] a single parent and you’re trying to take care of your three sisters, you do what you can to survive to make sure no one touches them. ...The best thing that ever happened to me was, I left.

“It was a little bit earlier than I anticipated. It was pretty rough at the time. But I had to straighten out my life.”

As a Marine, Santiago participated in “countless maneuvers to protect the boat people” fleeing South Vietnam.

When he returned to Chicago in 1975, he got a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad, the forerunner for Amtrak. He first was a diesel mechanic, then an all-purpose “car-knocker” cleaning and repairing Pullman cars.

His railroad co-workers turned him onto the job that would become his life’s calling: Chicago firefighter.

At the time, the firefighters’ entrance exam was primarily a test of physical fitness and agility. Since Santiago was a Marine reserve in top physical condition, his score landed him as No. 10 on the hiring list.

He was hired in September, 1979, and was on the job for all of two days when he made his first rescue.

But the timing couldn’t have been worse.

Within five months, firefighters went out on strike to protest then-Mayor Jane M. Byrne’s decision to confront the very issue that’s expected to be at the center of contentious contract talks between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2: the requirement that every piece of fire apparatus be staffed by a minimum of five firefighters. Santiago was told by his union brethren that the strike would “probably last hours.” Instead, it dragged on for 23 days.

The rookie firefighter scoured the want ads for another job, convinced, “we were all gonna get fired.” But he never once considered crossing the picket line.

“I gave my word I would see it through until the end. ...I never go back on my word,” he said.

In fact, Santiago and his colleagues at Engine No. 76 at Bloomingdale and Pulaski spent the strike monitoring fire radio and responding to every fire in their district.

“As soon as there was a fire or something where somebody was injured, we would jump in our personal cars, drive to that area. If we had a fire, we would go in and grab the hose lines from the [firefighters who] crossed the picket lines. There was like 1,000 people who came on [to break the strike]. They did not know which end of the hose” was which, Santiago recalled.

“We’d go inside, put the fire out, make sure everybody was safe. Then we would hand all the tools back, go back to the firehouse and hold our picket signs. ... We owned our own fire coats and helmets. But a lot of us were just in blue jeans and gym shoes running into the fire. ...We were not gonna let someone die in our neighborhood because of the strike.”

After the strike, Santiago worked his way up the ladder — with stints at Squads 1 and 2 and at the Fire Department’s training academy.

He ran the 911 center for the final year of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration — and presided during the Blizzard of 2011 fiasco that shut down Lake Shore Drive — before returning to the Fire Department under Emanuel as deputy commissioner in charge of the Bureau of Operations.

“The thing that stands out in your mind are the ones [who] don’t live. You’re real close. You’re doing mouth-to-mouth. You’re working on ‘em. You’re hoping. You cross your fingers. [But] they don’t survive,” he said.

Santiago spent 12 years “catching up” with the decision he made to drop out of high school — first by earning his GED, then attending Chicago City Colleges and Southern Illinois University and finally teaching fire science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Hoff retired at 56, the same age as Santiago. After declaring that he was “deathly against” closing fire houses or reducing the minimum staffing requirement on fire apparatus, the widely-held belief is that Hoff couldn’t stomach the inevitable cuts, so he left.

Santiago is perceived, more as a go-along, get-along commissioner who will roll over for whatever economies Emanuel wants to make in the city’s second-largest department.

But the divorced father of two adult daughters should not be underestimated.

“We’re about to take this [department] into the 21st Century. How can technology help us run better? There’s a lot of stuff out there. How can we make it run efficiently first — before we even look at cutting,” Santiago said.

“We have to reform the job. ...There are changes [coming]. ...But everything is gonna be done with this big umbrella of safety built over it.”

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