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Columnist
Murders recall tragic deaths of firefighters
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 8/4/2009 5:03 PM | Updated: 8/4/2009 9:44 PM

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Originally published Jan. 17, 1993

The moments are etched in Palatine's history. The public outpouring of emotion for the dead. The pulling together of a close-knit community in the wake of tragedy.

The shock. The disbelief. The mass mourning. The swarm of news media descending on the village. The photographs of caskets and sobbing grievers. The flags at half-staff. The flowers left at the site where people died. The donations of money to a trust fund for the relatives of the victims. The transformation of a local business into a grisly death scene. The struggle to come to grips with a previously unimaginable loss.

Feb. 23,1973 - the day three of Palatine's volunteer firefighters were killed.

"John Wilson, Warren Ahlgrim and Richard Freeman died like soldiers in battle. All Palatine volunteer firemen, they were overcome by smoke and perished in the rubble of the basement of the Ben Franklin store in downtown Palatine Friday."

That's the way we reported it nearly 20 years ago.

Now, those same emotions and sentiments are revisiting Palatine in the wake of the Jan. 8 slayings of seven employees of Brown's Chicken & Pasta.

"No question about it. It brought back all the memories to me," said Wendell Jones, a longtime Palatine resident who is running for village president, just as he was 20 years ago.

"This is eerie," Jones said, referring to the recent tragedy. "I went to the memorial service (Thursday night) and all these memories of going to three funerals in one day came back to me. That's not the kind of thing you're ever going to forget."

Today's Palatine residents will always remember where they were when they heard about the mass murder. Just as Jones remembers the day when the firefighters died. He was driving to work.

"I looked over my shoulder for some reason and saw this black smoke billowing," he said. When he got to work, he telephoned the village hall.

"They told me there'd been a fire at the Ben Franklin store and that three of the firemen went down stairs to put out the fire and never came out,"Jones recalled. "We lost three brave men, and it's certainly something I'll remember for the rest of my life."

John Wilson was 40, owned the Ben Franklin store and was a well-liked fixture in the community.

Warren "Auggie" Ahlgrim was 32 and had a plumbing store in town.

Richard Freeman was only 25 and died just a block from the hardware store owned by his father, Howard, who was a lieutenant on the volunteer fire department. The public donated $42,500 to the special trust fund for the seven children left fatherless.

Fire Chief Orville Helms was so gripped by sadness. He found it difficult to speak of the tragedy. "They were well-trained. They were all good family men. That's all I can say," Helms said.

During Jones' term as village president, Palatine broke away from the concept of a volunteer fire department and hired more full-time firefighters.

"That was an outgrowth of that tragedy," he said.

Palatine firefighter John Wente, who attended last week's memorial service for the murder victims, said the emotions are "the same, but different."

"I remember a little of the (firefighters') funerals," said Wente, who was 25 when his fellow firefighters died. "It was a rough one, it really was. It was just so darn tragic."

Now a grandfather, Wente said this new horror is "just unbelievable."

"This was a deliberate act," he said in disbelief. "How someone could just up and take someone's life - I just can't understand."

"Palatine is a strong community," Jones said. When the firefighters died, "everybody rallied together in a spirit of 'Let's pull up our bootstraps and get through this,' and we did," he said. "And we will this time, too."

Get through it? Yes. Get over it? Never.

It will become a permanent memory, a measuring stick of tragedy, just as the fire deaths are for Jones.

"It was the second worst day in Palatine's history," he notes. "It used to be No. 1, but now it's dropped to No. 2."

And the sad memory is still fresh in the mind of retired fire chief Helms.

"It brings up a lot of memories for me," Helms said in comparing the two tragic days. "I don't want to talk about it, to be honest with you."