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‘You don’t need a last name for Herbie. Everybody knew Herbie’

Updated: December 5, 2012 6:44AM

Flanked by his firefighter comrades, Capt. Herbie Johnson’s devastated family wept in a huddle Saturday morning outside the office of the Cook County medical examiner.

An American flag hoisted over the street outside the morgue honored the first Chicago firefighter to die in the line of duty since 2010.

Johnson’s grief-stricken wife, Sue, wept with their three children and dozens of other relatives and friends as family spokesman Dan McMahon spoke for them all:

“He was always a hero to us and now he’s a hero for our city,” McMahon said. “Herbie never wanted glory or notoriety. Instead, all he wanted was to make Chicago a safer place for other members of the city. So please, in Herbie’s honor, check your smoke detectors right now, give your kids a hug.”

Then the body of the beloved fire captain was escorted from the office of the medical examiner through lines of saluting firefighters and carried past his Morgan Park home to the funeral home that will prepare him for burial.

Johnson’s funeral mass will be at 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Rita of Cascia High School, 7740 S. Western. Visitation is Wednesday evening at the school, which Johnson and his children attended.

Witnesses said they saw flames burning the attic of the wood-frame building at 2315 W. 50th Place about 5:30 p.m. Friday. Johnson, 54, was the first one in, they said.

Families inside the house — lots of small children included ­— got out safely, fighting through thick smoke after a good samaritan warned them that flames were shooting out of the house.

Firefighter Brian Woods also was inside the building, battling the fire. He was injured, but he was released from Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. His brother declined to comment Saturday evening.

Johnson died of smoke-inhalation injuries during the fire, the medical examiner’s office said, ruling his death an accident.

The Chicago Fire Department said Saturday night the blaze appeared to have started in a water heater in the attic, but the heater will be analyzed before a final determination is made.

Two families were displaced from their apartments. Rocio Castaneda and her family lived on the first floor. On Saturday, they searched through their belongings.

The Castanedas, who had only moved in only a month ago, escaped with just the clothes they were wearing, she said. They are staying in a hotel until they find another apartment.

“We are looking for a place of refuge,” said Castaneda, 36.

Thank God, she said, her family is fine, though the poor family of Captain Johnson is not.

“We feel their pain,” she said.

On the block of South Maplewood Avenue that’s home to Johnson’s family; one of his three sisters, and one of his five brothers, folks swapped stories. Others wrapped purple bunting around the trees. At St. Cajetan’s Saturday evening mass, the Rev. Frank Kurucz honored Johnson’s commitment to his parish, his family and his work.

“That’s what Herbie did,” Kurucz said. “He laid down his life.”

Chicago has shown its best side in the wake of Johnson’s death, said Tom Ryan, president of Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2.

“We love our city and we love our jobs, and the support from strangers — especially in the worst of times such as these — gives us the strength to move on and to hold true to our motto that we’re there when you need us, no matter what.”

Johnson was an easy man to know and love, said friend Tom Taff, who runs a camp for burn victims that Johnson helped support.

The recently promoted captain personified joie de vivre, a man with a big laugh who drove fire engines in parades, cooked for charity ­— left an impression in the many places he offered his service.

“You don’t need a last name for Herbie. Nobody knew Herbie Johnson,” Taff said.

“Everybody knew Herbie.”

Contributing: Casey Toner, Maudlyne Ihejirika, Michael Lansu, Donna Vickroy, Frank Main, Bob Rakow

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