When Tom Raychek was found dead Nov. 24 in his mobile home in Belvidere, it was thought he was alone in the world.
But as news of the 64-year-old retired firefighter’s death hit Facebook, many Chicago Fire Department “brothers” and “sisters” recognized his name and photo. They posted stories of his courage and generosity. They networked to offer help with funeral services. Thousands across the country shared Facebook posts about him.
He had volunteered at the grueling recovery of bodies at a 1994 plane crash in Roselawn, Indiana, which claimed 68 lives. He helped out at Misericordia and he cleaned up a firefighters’ memorial at Rosehill Cemetery.
His former battalion chief, Bill Kugelman, said Mr. Raychek told him he spent part of his childhood at a foster care facility. That experience led him to collect toys for needy kids, Kugelman said.
It turns out that Mr. Raychek did have relatives out of state. They were located by the Boone County Coroner’s office and Belvidere police, Coroner Rebecca Wigget said. His relatives are in the process of making funeral arrangements, Wigget said. Two groups, Ignite the Spirit and the Fire Chaplains’ Ministry Fund, stand ready to help with costs if there is need, Chicago Fire Department chaplain Thomas Mulcrone said.
“He was a great guy, and an excellent fireman,” Mulcrone said.
After Mr. Raychek retired about 15 years ago, he lost touch with many department colleagues. Some thought he had moved to Wisconsin. But for the last five years or so, he had been living at Greenview Estates in Belvidere, said Kelli Gavril Goodmonson, a manager of the mobile home community. “He was incredibly nice, always smiling,” she said.
She checked on him Nov. 24 after neighbors reported they hadn’t seen him.
“He had a wheelchair and a cane. He could get around in his house, but he couldn’t go far,” Goodmonson said. “The wheelchair and cane had been sitting outside for about a week.”
She and a maintenance manager found him inside his home. Mr. Raychek was pronounced dead of natural causes, Wigget said.
Goodmonson knew he was a firefighter. She had seen an old newspaper photo on his wall that showed Mr. Raychek rescuing a baby at a North Side blaze and carrying the child down a ladder. When he found out her son was a Fire Explorer, he talked about his career and told her his superiors were angry that the photo showed that he had raced up the ladder without proper gear.
Not knowing he had relatives, she posted an item about him on Facebook with the rescue photo. “I just wanted to say something nice about him. He was just a wonderful person,” Goodmonson said.
The post started circulating among friends, friends of friends and firefighters. One said, “ ‘Hey, I know someone who works high up’ ” in the Chicago Fire Department, she said. “The whole thing went viral Monday night.”
Some recognized him and recalled his kindness and dedication.
“All the brotherhood, it’s just so amazing,” she said. “It’s so solid and unconditional.”
In her post, she repeated what investigators were told by neighbors: that he had been a foundling. But Mr. Raychek, in a 1993 interview, said he actually become a state ward around first grade because his parents couldn’t care for him.
He worked at Engine 89 on the Northwest Side, Truck 25 in Rogers Park, and Engine 69 at Irving and Tripp, fire officials said. He finished his career at a mobile command van at O’Hare Airport.
Mr. Raychek was among about 20 Chicago firefighters to help authorities in Roselawn when American Eagle Flight 4184 went down on an Indianapolis-to-Chicago run. “On their own time, on their own dime, he went out to Roselawn,” Mulcrone said. For several days, “They did the body recovery, all the mapping.”
When Ron Howard was filming the 1991 movie “Backdraft” in Chicago, Kugelman thought the director was going to shoot a scene at a firefighters’ memorial at Rosehill. Kugelman sought help from colleagues to refurbish the monument.
“Tommy was one of them, and they cleaned the place up for me and cut the bushes down,” Kugelman said. Howard wound up filming elsewhere, but “Tom was on the monument cleaning it for me with soap and water. These guys cleaned it up like it was brand new.”
Mr. Raychek donated gifts at Christmas to the Lakeview Learning Center for the developmentally disabled. “He was always doing stuff like that,” Kugelman said. “Misericordia, he was always going over.”
“He just had a good, soft heart,” his former chief said.
“We have an honor guard lined up,” Mulcrone said. “We have bagpipers ready to go.”