By Ron Heal
Each February, the Palatine (IL) Fire Department holds a memorial service to honor three of its own fallen members from a February 23, 1973, fire in the downtown Ben Franklin store. Firefighters Warren Ahlgrim, Richard Freeman, and John Wilson lost their lives in a smoke-filled basement of the burning variety store.
The year 2013 marked the 40th observance of that deadly fire. As department members gathered for the observance, they were joined by and “old friend,” a 1969 FWD/Seagrave/Pitman 75-foot Snorkel with a 1,000-gpm pump. The truck that served the Palatine Fire Department from 1969 until 1981 was back in town and participated in the memorial service. Never mind that the fire truck was then lettered for the Pierceton (IN) Fire Department.
John Tobin was a high school senior in 1973. On the morning of February 23, his father, Dave Tobin, had left the house to respond as a volunteer member of the Palatine Fire Department to the downtown Ben Franklin fire. Tobin decided to skip classes and head to the fire scene. When he found a stubborn working fire that appeared to have started in the basement of the store, he made a quick trip home to retrieve his camera and returned to get several pictures at the fire. Included in his pictures is the Snorkel on scene. Tobin would later have a 34-year career with the Elgin (IL) Fire Department, retiring as an engineer in 2014. Fire apparatus has always been an important part of Tobin’s life as he also was associated with apparatus sales with dealers representing Seagrave and recently with the Illinois KME dealer.
Throughout his fire service career Tobin has always recalled that fatal 1973 fire in Palatine. The Snorkel truck would serve in Palatine until 1981. At that time, it was sold to the Salem (IL) Fire Department. Tobin’s finding the fire truck was not by accident. Knowing the whereabouts of the big rig was another thing on Tobin’s mind. Another thought that drove Tobin was to write and publish a book on the Ben Franklin fire. The book is titled “The Day Death Visited a Small Town,” a story of tragedy and the dismantling of a small town fire department. The book was therapy to try to help following the fatal fire. He is not sure that writing book was much help. One year when Tobin was returning from a fire chiefs conference in Kansas city, Missouri, he stopped in Salem to check on the rig.
A year later, when he paid a return visit, Tobin learned that the snorkel had been sold to the fire department in Pierceton. With the 2013 40th anniversary of the Ben Franklin fire coming up, Tobin was able to make arrangements with the Pierceton Fire Department to have the rig return to Palatine. Ray Plote, owner of Plote Excavating, agreed to transport the rig round trip for the special observance. February 23 was a typical Midwest cold winter day with plenty of snow on the ground. There is some very interesting footage available on YouTube that shows the procession and the big snorkel driven by Tobin.
Fast forward to early this year. Tobin is still active working with the Illinois KME dealer. The Pierceton Fire Department decided it was time to sell the 47-year-old fire truck. It knew of Tobin’s interest and made a call. It didn’t take long for a deal to be struck and the next thing Tobin had to do is go back to Ray Plote for his help in transportation—this time for a one-way trip. The rig is in almost pristine condition considering its age. When Tobin got the rig back home, the biggest needs were a good cleaning and changing the lettering showing the department name. Tobin had the Palatine Fire Department’s blessing to letter the rig for its original owner. He also added a tribute to the three firefighters lost in 1973. John now feels that with his obtaining the Snorkel that both his life and that of the fire truck have come full circle.
Tobin is currently storing the Snorkel in nearby rural DeKalb, Illinois. He is looking for suitable storage closer to home in West Dundee, Illinois. With the fire apparatus parade and muster season about to get underway in the Midwest accompanying the arrival of better weather, there will be many opportunities to parade and show his FWD/Seagrave/Pitman Snorkel. The Fire Buffs of Illinois muster is just ahead on Saturday, June 18 at the Chicago (IL) Fire Department Fire Academy. There are always July 4 parades. After those, Tobin looks forward to just getting the rig out for a nice Sunday drive. I can only hope that in some of my travels I find myself in Tobin’s neighborhood on one of those Sundays.