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Chicago firefighter Eddie Groya, who saved boy from blaze, dies at 86

Eddie Groya

Eddie Groya

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Updated: September 7, 2013 6:21AM

On Nov. 15, 1963, Chicago firefighter Eddie Groya pulled a 5-year-old to safety from a furious blaze in an apartment building at 547 W. Melrose. The little boy, Ricardo Vega, was a refugee from Cuba whose family had fled the Castro regime with only the clothes on their backs.

He never forgot the powerful hands that grabbed him and his grandfather from the smoke and flames and carried them down the stairs to safety. This Wednesday, he will be the honor guard who stands next to Eddie Groya’s casket.

Because that little boy grew up to be Chicago Fire Lt. Rick Vega, who found a career, a calling and a surrogate family in the Fire Department.

By coincidence, he wound up serving in the very same firehouse as his hero.

“I will stand at the casket in formal dress uniform and white gloves,” Vega said. “That’s the least I can do. Here’s a man that literally saved my life, and here’s the end of his life, and I’m going to stand honor guard for him. I would be honored and proud to do that.”

Mr. Groya, 86, died Saturday at Our Lady of the Resurrection Medical Center of complications from esophageal cancer.

Mr. Groya and Vega worked on Truck 44 at the firehouse at Diversey and Halsted, but they didn’t figure out that they were rescuer and rescuee until decades after the 1963 blaze.

Truck 44’s then-captain, Ray Bieschke, made the link. “He said to me, ‘I think Eddie Groya got you guys,’ ” Vega said. The firehouse journal helped prove it.

“I was on the third floor with my grandfather, and you grabbed us,” Vega told Mr. Groya.

And Mr. Groya knew.

“I remember,’’ he said.

“It obviously molded and changed my path in life,” Vega said.

Mr. Groya went to LeMoyne grade school and made his First Communion at St. Bonaventure. He attended Lane Tech High School. He didn’t graduate because he was drafted into the Army Air Corps. But World War II was winding down, and he was soon back in Chicago.

He met Rose Marie Kowalczyk at a Clark Street tavern. “They both had 1949 convertibles, and immediately appreciated one another,” said their daughter, Susan Hoffman. In 1952, they wed at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church.

In 1954, he joined the Fire Department. He fought a major blaze at the Hancock Building, and numerous fires that broke out after Chicago’s Blizzard of ’67. In 1973, he was honored for life-saving heroism, his daughter said.

He didn’t really like to travel. “His two happiest places to be were his own home, and the firehouse,” Susan Hoffman said.

When a firehouse chef challenged Mr. Groya to a cooking competition, “He made hot dogs, beans and apple sauce for a week — breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she said. “That’s how they kidded around with each other.”

At home, Mr. Groya was humble and rarely talked about his job, Susan Hoffman said. So she was stunned at the dramatic thanks she heard at his 1986 retirement party. A man arrived and told her, “ ‘I was 17 when he pulled me out of Diversey Harbor.’ He said he used to stop by the firehouse from time to time, and my dad would ‘straighten him out’ with advice to ‘do something with your life.’ ’’

“He was the one who taught ‘the new guys’ the complex tasks of firefighting. He mentored so many young firefighters who have gone on to become officers and chief officers in the Chicago Fire Department,” said department Chaplain Tom Mulcrone. “He was the guy you wanted to sit next to at the kitchen table, and he was definitely the guy you wanted next to you when you were crawling down a hallway with fire rolling over your head.”

He loved crossword puzzles, apple sauce and eating at the Lucky Grill on Milwaukee Avenue. Up till a month ago, he was playing — and walking — 18 holes of golf. He liked to greet people with “Hiya, smiley” and “Hey, good-lookin.’ ”

Mr. Groya also is survived by his son, Robert; his sisters, Mary Ann Jirgal and Kathy Siegel, and two grandchildren. Visitation is from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Malec & Sons, 6000 N. Milwaukee. His funeral is private.

“In Eddie’s honor,” his family wrote in his death notice, “play a round of golf and lift a silent prayer when any fire truck goes by.”

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