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Firefighter dies battling West Loop blaze

Tuesday, August 10, 2010
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A Chicago firefighter died after he fell several stories while fighting a fire early Monday morning at Avec restaurant in the West Loop.

Christopher Wheatley, 31, slipped and fell from a ladder in a fire escape in the 600-block of West Randolph.

Wheatley had been with the Chicago Fire Department since 2000 as a firefighter and paramedic. In 2008, he solely became a firefighter. He was battling a grease fire at Avec restaurant when he fell around 1:30 a.m.

One official became emotional when announcing his death.

"Chris Wheatley was assigned to Truck Company 2. He was 31. He left a mother, father, sister and fiancee. We ask that everybody keeps him and his family in their prayers. He was one of our finest," said Commissioner Robert Hoff, Chicago Fire Department.

Wheatley was wearing up to 75 pounds of equipment, including an ax and hose, fire officials said. He was carrying tools and equipment to the roof.

The fire started about 12:30 a.m. and was extinguished a short time later.

Wheatley is remembered for his dedication to the job that he loved. His fellow firefighters say he was an aggressive firefighter who took his job extremely seriously, but who also had a sense of humor, often making crews laugh.

"He trained constantly, took a lot of difference classes to educate himself and make him better. He was a good team player, helped out with the small things, house cleaning, cleaning up. He never backed off that. He was always there," said Brian Reese, Chicago firefighter.

Firefighters who worked with Wheatley hung a purple and black bunting at their West Loop fire station, gave each other support and talked about his passion and strive to help others.

"He was a great guy, step-up guy, great shape, worked out every day. Loved his sports, loved to ride on his boat with his fiancée, loved his family," said Scott Buckley, Chicago firefighter. "We have our family at home and we have our family here at the firehouse. It's as strong as our family at home."

Firefighters and paramedics held a procession of at least 25 police and fire units for Wheatley just hours after the accident as his body was brought to the medical examiner's office. Police squad cars with their lights turned on lined West Harrison Street from North Damen Avenue to the medical examiner's office at 2121 West Harrison Street.

Ambulance No. 15 pulled into the intake area at the medical examiner's office as part of a process that included squad cars, ambulances, fire trucks, police SUVs and unmarked fire department vehicles driving about 10 mph along Harrison St. with 14 people walking behind the ambulance.

Wheatley was initially taken to John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County in critical condition, according to police.

"We don't know yet, but it's not good," Fire Media Affairs Director Larry Langford said early Monday before Wheatly's death.

"He was extremely dedicated, as a paramedic and also as a firefighter. He will never be able to replaced. But we have to go o, that's our job. He will never be replaced," said Buckely.

The last time a Chicago firefighter died while battling a fire was 12 years ago in February 1998. Anthony Lockhart and Patrick King were both 40-years-old at the time of their deaths.

The two were battling a fire at a tire and auto repair shop on the Southwest Side when the roof collapsed. Both died from their injuries.

Two other firefighters were hurt.

Wheatley's family issued a statement saying, in part, "Chris lived his life to the fullest; he put everything he had into both work and play. He loved his family more than anyone can ever know. He loved people he had known all his life and was just as caring for those he had just met."

"I was lucky to have him in my life. He was a true beacon of life, laughter and love. He loved all of us and made sure he told us everyday," his fiancee said.

The family is making arrangements for his service. Chris Wheatley's funeral will likely be Thursday or Friday.

The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.

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