Chicago’s Forum Cafeteria Fire

Forty years ago today, three firefighters lost their lives—and 28 others were injured—when the roof of the Forum Cafeteria on West Madison Street in Chicago collapsed during a fire.

The original Forum Cafeteria opened in Kansas City in 1921. The Chicago location opened in 1939 and became one of the biggest and most popular spots to dine in Chicago. Its vast, colorful and sleekly designed interior could seat hundreds of people—and hundreds did come. People lined up early in the morning to get a seat inside, and they didn’t stop lining up throughout the day. Lines would stretch around down the block—even at closing time, which was 9 or 10 p.m., people were waiting to get in.

The cafeteria served the normal fare: everything from hot dogs and hamburgers to Jell-O and cake, and although neither the food nor the cafeteria-style self-service was particularly fancy or upscale, it was the place to be, particularly for younger people who were starting their night out on the town.

On Jan. 6, 1973, dozens of firefighters responded to a call involving a fire in the cafeteria. More than 60 firefighters were operating inside the structure when the bowstring-truss roof began to giveA tribute to the firefighters who lost their lives when the roof of Chicago’s Forum Cafeteria collapsed during a fire in 1973 way, as fire had been burning inside the false ceiling on the second floor for several minutes, compromising the truss’ integrity.

Officers on the interior noticed the roof start to buckle, so they ordered their men out, but the roof collapsed before all could escape. Many of those trapped and/or buried under the rubble were pulled out by their fellow firefighters; others escaped by sliding down a dumbwaiter shaft. Sadly, three firefighters did not make it out alive.

Today, we remember firefighters Richard E. Kowalzyk (Engine 104), Timothy Moran (Engine 25) and Alfred Stach (driver for the Second Deputy Fire Marshal, Robert Lucas) of the Chicago Fire Department.

Here are a few discussion topics/items to consider when fighting fires in a commercial occupancy:

  • Fire impingement on truss spaces is an absolute loser. Firefighters must make every effort to maintain the highest level of situational awareness when it comes to void space fires.
  • Check/pull ceilings while standing near doors/entryways for hidden or advancing fire travel overhead.
  • When advancing deep into a building (for a smells and bells alarm or a confirmed fire), take a look overhead by lifting ceiling tiles and using a flashlight and/or thermal imager to ensure there is no heat/fire/smoke traveling overhead. The Sofa Super Store Fire (June 18, 2007) that occurred in Charleston, S.C., is likely the best example of why we need to confirm the fire conditions overhead.
  • Bowstring or lightweight truss constructed buildings should be approached with an extra degree of caution (Remember the Hackensack, N.J., tragedy, which occurred in July 1988).
  • Limit your travel distance into a building by locating the closest point of access. Remember, the path you take to access the fire is also the path you’ll likely need to take to exit the structure—10 minutes in is 10-plus minutes of air to escape.
  • Air management is critical. Fires in commercial buildings require us to apply strict discipline in the use and application of the rules of air management. Never allow your low-air alarm be your indicator to exit. Always maintain a reserve air supply to allow you to exit (Example: 1/3 for going in, 1/3 to work, 1/3 to exit).
  • Incident commanders should ensure that they position themselves in a position so that they can see the whole picture (strategic); never compromise your situational awareness by getting too close.