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Thousands Mourn Fallen Chicago Firefighter

Thousands Mourn Fallen Chicago Firefighter

The procession moves along 103rd Street before a funeral Mass for Chicago firefighter Christopher Wheatley in St. John Fisher Catholic Church Friday.

Chicago Tribune via Yellowbrix

August 14, 2010

Under the blazing sun, they waited.

In their crisp blue uniforms and white gloves, hundreds of firefighters in perfect formation outside the funeral home waited.

For more than two miles along the hushed street, children on bicycles and old men waving American flags waited.

Outside St. John Fisher Catholic Church, in the grassy yards of strangers, hundreds more waited.

And when the flag-draped coffin of Chicago firefighter Christopher Wheatley arrived on Engine 5, they honored him.

The bagpipes fell silent. The salutes held strong. The tears flowed.

One by one, the pallbearers lifted Wheatley’s coffin and carried it into the church. Behind them, Wheatley’s family — holding hands and crying softly — followed.

When Wheatley became a firefighter two years ago, after eight years as a paramedic, his mother, Mary, worried about her only son, the Rev. Thomas Mulcrone told the packed church of more than 1,000 at the funeral Mass on Friday. Fire officials estimated an additional 2,000 — from across the Chicago area and as far as New York and Boston — listened through loudspeakers outside.

“I want you to tell (your chief) you can’t do anything dangerous, and if he asks why, tell him your mother said so,” his mother had told him.

But Wheatley, who as a boy would painstakingly line up his toy firetrucks and firefighters so not a one was crooked, loved being a firefighter. He exuded a passion for his job, for running into a burning building when those inside were running out.

“Chris was the type of firefighter you wanted sitting next to you at the kitchen table, and he was definitely the guy you wanted with you when you were crawling down the hallway and the fire was rolling across the ceiling overhead,” Mulcrone said.

He exemplified all the qualities of a firefighter and paramedic — pride, respect, courtesy, teacher, helper, worker — said fire Commissioner Robert Hoff, whose firefighter father imparted that list to him before he was killed in the line of duty.

Wheatley, who grew up in Lemont and played Little League baseball, died when he slipped off a fire-escape ladder at a West Loop restaurant Monday. He was weighed down by more than 40 pounds of equipment when he fell to his death.

“Rest in peace, brother,” Hoff said.

Wheatley, 31, is the first Chicago firefighter to die battling a blaze in more than a decade.

During the Mass, the International Association of Fire Fighters awarded Wheatley’s family — his mother, father Daniel, sister Kim Skubic, brother-in-law Chris Skubic and fiancee Jessica Roberts — the medal of honor.

The night of his death, Wheatley’s mother said the loss of her son is a hole that can never be filled.

As devoted as he was to the department, and as committed as he was to his favorite football team, above all else, Wheatley loved his family.

“And how he loved you, Jessica,” Mulcrone said.

Nearly everything Wheatley owned, including the tailgating grill his fiancee helped him score, sported the Chicago Bears logo. It seemed only fitting that when Truck 2 arrived at the church Friday morning, resting on top was a Bears flower arrangement.

“Chris is finding out the gates of heaven are not blue and orange,” said Timothy Mannix, Wheatley’s cousin and godfather.

The miles-long procession to the cemetery included more than 20 firetrucks from throughout the Chicago area and a line of cars flying miniature Bears flags. As they passed, firefighters flanked both sides of the street and saluted a final time.

As Engine 5, Wheatley’s engine, turned the corner, the sun caught light of words emblazoned on the side: “We’re here when you need us.”