50 years on, 4 firefighters killed in sausage plant blaze, explosion remembered

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People blocks away from the Mickelberry Sausage Plant were knocked off their feet when a deadly explosion caused by a gasoline fire leveled the building in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Feb. 7, 1968.

Four firefighters were killed.

On Wednesday — 50 years later — more than 100 Chicago firefighters gathered at the site of the fire to remember their bravery, as well as the lives of five employees of the company who also perished.

Moments before the late afternoon blast, Arthur G. Murray, a 23-year-old accountant, was on the roof of the brick building with several co-workers as firefighters scrambled to get them down ladders.

Billowing smoke had forced them to the roof.

The blaze was being fed by a gasoline tanker that — after completing a delivery to the sausage plant — began leaking fuel into the building’s basement. When the gas reached the boiler, it ignited.

Murray was standing at the edge of the building’s roof, watching the chaos on the street below with an odd sense of detachment when he heard one firefighter tell another: “We’ve got to get people off this roof because it’s going to blow.”

“And as soon as he said the word ‘blow,’ the building just disintegrated,” Murray recalled Wednesday.

“I was blown off the roof,” he said. “I ended up across Halsted Street in a used car parking lot — banged against several automobiles — but I was conscious all the while,” he said.

Brick and rubble suddenly covered the southwest corner of 49th Place and Halsted Street.

Murray choked up while trying to express his gratitude to the firefighters and his disbelief that he survived.

Ken Leifker’s father was killed while fighting the fire. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

“Firefighters are just … I get emotional … It was my lucky day, obviously,” he said.

A bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” Wednesday at the site of the fire — now a vacant lot — as relatives of the deceased firefighters laid a wreath.

“Today kind of really makes me feel proud of my dad,” said Ken Leifker, who was 7 when his father, firefighter Edward Leifker, 40, was killed.

Reflecting on his post-Mickelberry fire life, Leifker, one of six siblings, said: “I guess it affects you when you don’t have a dad to coach your baseball teams and stuff, so it seems like my mom was both my mom and my dad my whole life.”

Firefighter Charles Bottger, 27, was also killed. He was one of 13 siblings.

Bottger’s brother, Ted — himself a retired Chicago firefighter, who was 12 at the time — shared a few fond memories Wednesday at the firehouse where his brother worked. It’s only a block from the scene of the blaze.

“He took me for a ride on his motorcycle once and we went about a block and he saw this girl and started talking to her and told me to hit the road,” he said with a laugh.

Siblings Ted Bottger, Joyce Chow, David Bottger and Bruce Bottger. Their father, Chicago firefighter Charles Bottger, was killed in the Mickelberry Sausage Plant Fire on Feb. 7, 1968. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Another brother, Bruce Bottger, also a retired Chicago firefighter, was 17 at the time.

“I remember the priest coming to the house with the bad news. He was my favorite brother. It was very sad, and it never leaves you,” he said.

Also killed were firefighters Thomas Collins, 45, and John Fischer, 40.

“I salute the families here today as we remember the day that the gates of hell opened up in the Back of the Yards neighborhood and the lives of so many changed,” Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago said Wednesday.

Mickelberry owner Roy Laidley perished while trying to assist a disabled clerk, who also died.

More than 70 people were injured.

“Within minutes, the radio traffic turned into screams,” Santiago said Wednesday. “It will send chills down your spine.”

However, the carnage could have been much worse.

At the time of the explosion, most factory workers had left for the day. Only a skeleton crew remained — most of whom escaped.