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This week in history: Deadly fires in Pilsen lead to action

After a string of devastating fires in late 1976, Pilsen residents took to City Hall to demand more Spanish-speaking firefighters stationed in the community.

Protest outside City Hall calls for more Spanish-speaking firemen in Pilsen
Members of Chicago’s Latino neighborhoods protest outside City Hall regarding the need for more Latino firemen in their communities on Jan. 3, 1977. The group wishes for existing Latino firemen to be transferred into new districts.
From the Sun-Times archives

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

Activism runs deep in the Pilsen community. Whether fighting for better schools or access to health care, residents, mostly from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking Central and South American countries, have banded together to take care of the neighborhood. In early January 1977, a rash of fire-related fatalities spurred the community to act.

On Jan. 3, 1977, leaders from the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council met with fire commissioner Robert J. Quinn at City Hall to demand more Spanish-speaking firefighters in the area, according to a front-page Chicago Daily News article. While they talked, protesters outside picketed.

The council believed the 17 fire-related fatalities in two fires on Christmas Eve and Jan. 2 could have been prevented if firefighters spoke the language of those they were trying to save, the paper said.

On Dec. 24, 1976, 12 people died in a fire at 1811 W. 17th St., the Daily News reported. Fire officials suspected charcoal lighter fluid, likely used for an indoor barbecue, as the culprit in the fire. They suggested “education in fire safety might prevent such tragedies.”

On Jan. 2, 1977, five people — including three children — lost their lives in a fire at 1706 W. 17th St., a four-story brick building. In that fire, investigators told the paper that the owner of the building admitted to using gasoline to scrub graffiti off the hallway walls and floors. The surfaces likely absorbed some of the gasoline and helped spread the fire more rapidly.

Ruby Schiffauer, who escaped from the Jan. 2 fire, said she felt increasingly anxious in the days leading up to the incident, given the Christmas Eve fire and several other arsons in the area, the paper said. She had been getting ready for bed when the blaze broke out.

“I heard somebody scream outside my apartment,” she told a Daily News reporter. “I looked out the window and saw smoke coming out of the other (attached) buildings. I ran and grabbed my cat and went to open the door, but the lock was so hot you couldn’t hardly touch it.”

Still holding her cat, Poncho, Schiffauer dashed to her kitchen window, broke the glass and hurried down the fire escape outside, the paper reported. As she ran down, two firemen ran up to rescue others in the building. “Many got out on their own, jumping out windows or climbing down fire escapes,” the paper said.

The council’s meeting with Quinn turned out to be a successful one, and he agreed to several of their demands.

“At a news conference,” the paper reported, “Quinn said he would ask the department’s Spanish-speaking firemen if they would be willing to serve the Pilsen area. The group demanded nine Spanish-speaking firemen in Pilsen.”

He also agreed to assign a Spanish-speaking paramedic team to the Engine 23 station and announced plans to teach more firefighters Spanish so communication barriers would no longer be a problem.