They were the fathers of young children, living and working just a few miles apart from each other on the city’s Southwest Side — one, a career public servant recalled as the best of Chicago, the other a Chicago newcomer who was supporting his family in Mexico.
And while Chicago Fire Department diver Juan Bucio had never met 28-year-old Alberto Lopez, a tragic set of circumstances brought them together on Memorial Day in the Chicago River, leaving Bucio dead and authorities still searching for Lopez.
“I can’t say enough about this man — as a father, as a family man, as a friend, as a coworker, as a peer . . . he was the best,” Deputy District Chief Ron Dorneker said. “I’m telling you, Juan Bucio loved this job. He loved being a Chicago firefighter, and he loved being part of this dive team.”
Bucio, 46, had been searching for Lopez, who’d fallen off a boat near the 2600 hundred block of South Ashland about 7:50 p.m. Monday.
Two other people were in a 16-foot johnboat with Lopez, who was sitting on the railing when another boat passed and the wake knocked him overboard, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
During the search, Bucio lost contact with his dive partner. They eventually located him, but he was pronounced dead at Stroger Hospital.
Dorneker needed some time to collect himself while speaking to reporters Tuesday outside Bucio’s station, Engine 13, at 259 N. Columbus Dr.
“Give me a second. Work with me,” a choked-up Dorneker said. Behind him, the station was draped with purple bunting in honor of the fallen firefighter. “This is for Juan.”
Bucio, who briefly was a Chicago police officer before joining CFD, moved to the dive team as soon as he could after joining the department.
“He loved the water. He was great in the water. He was one of the best we had,” Dorneker said.
Shortly after noon, Mayor Rahm Emanuel arrived at the firehouse to console grieving firefighters.
“He has two sons. And I think it’s important for his sons to know that their dad is a hero — a Chicago hero who gave his all for the rest of us,” Emanuel said haltingly.
“This obviously hits, as you could see all the firemen here who are part of the rescue team, unbelievably hard. They are a tight-knit family. … They have incredible skill, incredible dedication and show in a time of need incredible courage.”
The mayor noted that Bucio never met the person he was asked to save, but nevertheless “did what was asked of him on behalf of the rest of us.” Chicago is a “better city” because of it, the mayor said.
“We lost a real hero. And I want everybody, if they can, to remember he has two young sons. For them, there’ll be an empty seat at the breakfast table. For them, their dad, their hero, our hero, won’t be there on graduation day. We all have to remember that,” the mayor said.
The search for the missing boater was scheduled to resume Wednesday.
Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago also visited Bucio’s station Tuesday afternoon.
The incident that claimed Bucio’s life began when a man fell into the Chicago River from a boat. Firefighters responded to the call about 7:49 p.m.
During the search, Bucio lost contact with his dive partner, Santiago said.
Bucio was eventually located and pulled from the river by backup divers who jumped in to search for him. He was taken to Stroger Hospital by ambulance and was pronounced dead at the hospital at 10:02 p.m., according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.
An autopsy was conducted Tuesday afternoon, but a ruling on the cause an manner of his death was not immediately made pending further investigation, the medical examiner’s office said.
On Tuesday afternoon, a police car was stationed outside Bucio’s home in the 6300 hundred block of W. 63rd St.
“He’s a nice guy and very polite and you could tell he was a very great dad,” Maria Candeles said Tuesday afternoon after visiting with relatives who were neighbors of Bucio’s.
Across the street from the firefighter’s home, a firefighter’s helmet lay on top of a bucket on a second floor patio.
Jerry Kamin said the helmet belonged to his father, who was on the Chicago Fire Department in the 1930s.
Kamin said he did it to let Bucio’s relatives know “that we feel the pain of the family.”
The search for Lopez was suspended late Tuesday afternoon, with authorities expected to resume Wednesday.
Mauricio Cruz, an owner of VD Interiors where Lopez worked on installation projects, said the 28-year-old arrived in Chicago about a year ago to make money for his wife and three young children in Mexico.
“It’s shocking. He wanted to make things better for his family,” Cruz said.
Police are investigating Bucio’s death, but have no reason to believe it was anything but a tragedy.
“We are investigating the circumstances of the diver’s death but there is no signs of foul play or evidence of any criminal wrongdoing by anyone at this point,” police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said. “It appears to be a heartbreaking tragedy”
The stretch of river just west of Ashland Avenue where Bucio was pulled from the water contains a scrap metal yard. A Chicago Park District riverside trail is on the opposite bank. The area is just northwest of Bridgeport.
Bucio joined the CFD in 2003 and had been a member of the dive team since 2007. He is survived by his two sons, ages 7 and 9, and nine siblings. One of his brothers is a fellow CFD firefighter, and one of his sisters is a Chicago police officer, Santiago said.
“A piece of Chicago was lost tonight,” said CPD Superintendent Eddie Johnson in a statement Tuesday. Johnson called Bucio “a hero who dedicated and ultimately gave his life attempting to save others.”
Firefighter-paramedic and fellow diver Brian Coffman said he was “choked up” and “shocked” when he heard the news about his colleagues. Most of all, he feels incredibly sorry for the Bucio family.
“I was numb when I first heard the news. And driving to work this morning, I was kind of numb the whole entire way into work. … I know that things can change in an instant … My instructors in the academy told me stories. It’s just really rough. Things can change in an instant. Don’t take anything for granted,” Coffman said.
“Juan was a good guy. He was always jumping in. Whether it’s doing housework or trying to motivate you in training. … I trained with him. I’ve been on incidents with him. He was a consummate professional. Calm. When things had to be done fast, he was there. I trusted him with my life as a partner.”
Lt. Chris Meziere of the Air and Sea Rescue Unit described Bucio as “incredible” and as a “great diver.”
“When I came here as a firefighter, Juan was one of the first guys I met and I looked up to him. Whatever you needed done, Juan got it done. He never said `no.’ I never heard him complain about a single thing. He got up and he got it done. He’s what we call a go-to guy. When something needed to be done, Juan Bucio was the guy who got it done,” Meziere said.
“Great swimmer. Great diver. I had several dive jobs with Juan and he just went to work. He did it for the people of Chicago and he did it for Air and Sea Rescue. We’re proud of Juan. He’s gonna be remembered as a hero. Nobody expects to go to work and not come home. Neither did Juan. When Juan jumped out of the helicopter on that dive mission, Juan didn’t expect what happened to him. We go to work. We do our job. That’s it….We’re here to save lives.”
Firefighter John Metzger choked back tears as he talked about getting to know Bucio on a more personal level because their kids went to school together.
“I feel for them. They should know that their father always talked about them. That’s what hurts the most,” Metzger said before walking away from the cameras.
Bucio is the 13th member of the Chicago Fire Department to have died in the line of duty since 2000, according to the Illinois Fire Service Institute.
The last line of duty death happened in December of 2015, when firefighter Daniel Capuano died from injuries suffered in a fall, according to the institute.
Ladders and an American flag were raised for a procession as Bucio’s body was brought from Stroger Hospital to the Cook County Morgue early Tuesday. Dozens of CFD and CPD personnel lined up and saluted as the ambulance drove past.
“Please keep the family in your prayers,” said Santiago.
Two other divers were taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in good condition, Santiago said. They have since been released.
Contributing: Mitchell Armentrout, Tom Schuba and Taylor Hartz