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Faith of a Fireman

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George Rabiela, left, was photographed in February 2000 by Robert A. Davis as part of the CITY 2000 photodocumentary project. I interviewed him in September 2000 in his office above the Chicago Fire Department's "Survive Alive" house.

My name is George Rabiela, and I've been on the fire department for 24 years. I came to this country from Mexico. My parents brought us over when I was two years old.

My dad, I think he came here illegally; I don't know, I was too young, but that's what my older brothers and sisters told me. I don't know why he came here to Chicago. There was no family here. He came over and got his papers taken care of, and then brought us over, because it's a land of opportunity. And you know what? I've seen that; I'm living proof that it's a land of opportunity.

He worked in factories. I believe one of the companies he worked for was a box company. Then when my ma came, she worked in a knitting company, on the north side, Schuessler Knitting Mills. She used to run a machine. She'd knit Bears stocking caps and stuff like that. She got profit sharing from that and she retired. She's now living in Acapulco in a big house right off the cliff.

We lived on Roosevelt and Racine the earliest I can recall. It was on the third floor and it was right on the corner, and there was a store on the bottom where I used to get these little potato chips soaked with hot sauce. We bounced around. I was on Roosevelt and Racine, Roosevelt and May. My mom and my dad were separated. I was a kid, probably seven, eight years old, and I remember having to visit my dad in the car. He would come in front of the house and I would have to sit in the car for two, three hours. They were bad memories; I didn't know what to say to him, and my mother wouldn't let him come in the house. So my mom was the one who bought a house in Brighton Park; I remember she paid I think $15,000 for it. The guy who constructed the house signed for her, because she didn't have any credit established, and she paid off the house and probably about 20 years ago she sold it to my brother for about $40,000.

At Roosevelt and May I remember there was a big fire in the building. I had to be four or five years old. The landlord was a little intoxicated. He went down into the basement because the pipes were frozen. It was the middle of the winter, and he took a blowtorch to thaw them. I remember a fireman holding me in his arms and he gave me a piece of fruit. I think it was an orange or an apple, I can't remember, but I remember being in his arms. And then, the ironic thing was, that's where God sent me to be a fireman to start off my career, right at that house. The very first station I was assigned to was Engine 18, which is on Roosevelt and May.

My first good fire there was a very famous place--Fontano's, where they sell the sub sandwiches. It was my first rescue. I remember I was in the shower when we got the alarm. I fell down maybe four or five stairs, made it onto the truck puttin' on all my gear, and I had soap in my hair. As soon as we pulled out of the house, we knew we had a fire. I mean just going there your heart's drivin' already 'cause you can see it billowing for blocks. When we pulled up there, people were pointing up, screamin' that there was somebody on the third floor. My job was to help the engineer; I was the hydrant man. But when I saw those people--I believe they were hanging from the window. You can't hang for a very long time. That was one of the things we had to do on the fire department entrance test, and I was able to hang for maybe two minutes. So they were hanging, and there was a woman holding a younger victim. And I remember grabbin' two men from the corner, I said give me a hand with this ladder. As we're puttin' the ladder up it was teeter-tottering back and forth, because the civilians weren't experienced in raising it, so finally I pulled it and slammed it into the building. As soon as the ladder hit the building the younger victim grabbed it, and that's when I went up there and assisted both of them coming down so they wouldn't fall off the sides. Here I was a rookie, and all the veteran firemen were comin' up to me and congratulating me on a great job, so I was on cloud nine.

I always wanted to be a policeman. And I took both tests. There was a couple of guys who were firemen in our neighborhood, and there was a lot of policemen, and every time a test came up they would let the other guys know. And I remember distinctly the fire department and the police test were only a few months apart. I took a written test for the police department, and they didn't think I was qualified. But the fire department test was much more physical. You had to be in good shape. And I was in excellent shape. I was just out of high school. I had played football for Kelly. We took section champs. I was the smallest fullback in the city of Chicago. And that helped me when I took the fireman's test, because we had to go up three flights of stairs with 60 pounds of hose on our backs, we had to carry a dummy and run with him, we had to go through an obstacle course, through a window, across a ladder. And this was all done on time. They had public schoolteachers with stopwatches; there were two of them and they would both check the time and write it down.

When I took the exam I was 19 years old, and I got on the department when I was 23. That's around when they first started the affirmative action. It was February 16, 1977, and I looked at it as a great job. I was ten years as a fireman, then I got promoted to lieutenant, and from lieutenant I went to captain. I was a captain for six years.

This picture of me, we were at the Hubbard Street bridge, I was probably talking on the radio. That was probably one of my last fires as a captain. Just recently, May first, I got promoted to deputy district chief in charge of public education.

You wouldn't believe how all this came about--how God put all these people together in my life and I was able to get this promotion.

I was raised in the Catholic religion, and to me it really didn't mean nothin'. But I would say about ten years ago, I started to go to a Christian church that my sister-in-law and my brother-in-law belonged to. They would pick up the kids and take them to this kids' club. The kids would come home with scriptures, and they'd have to memorize some of them, and it started touching mine and my wife's heart. We started attending the different plays they did, and eventually I accepted Christ and it completely changed my life around. You can see my Bible sitting there; in the morning before I start work I like to open it up and read some scripture; that's what gets me through the day. That book teaches me how to live, how to treat other people fair. And that's what it means to me to be born again and to accept the Lord into my life. I look at everything differently now, even the way I work. I don't work for Commissioner Joyce, or [Deputy] Commissioner Wideman, who are my two big bosses. When I come to work, I look at it as if I'm working for the Lord.

God put everything together, and I just thank him for my job. It came out of the blue--I was sitting on my porch. About a month or two prior to that, I took the chief's test. From captain it goes to battalion chief; that's the highest position you can get testing. So I took the test and I didn't do too good on it. So I was a little bit discouraged. But then I said, look at what I'm doin'. I'm the captain of Engine 13. It's a beautiful firehouse, it overlooks a golf course...and instead of gettin' down I started thankin' God that I was a captain on a world-class fire department. And then about a week later I was sitting on my porch and here comes the chief who has the job I have now, in charge of this public education unit; he pulls up with his kid, ridin' a bike. I asked him, "How did you do on the battalion chief's test?" He was also the rank of captain, same as I am, but he had this position, which is an appointed job. And he told me, "George, I did excellent. I'm number seven or eight on the list for battalion chief." And I said, "Well that's good, but you're probably gonna stay right where you're at; you're making a lot more money, you're not gonna go back to bein' a battalion chief, you'll keep that appointed position." And he looked at me and he said, "You know what? I've been behind a desk for ten years. I need to get out there in the field." And I says, "Well who's gonna take your spot?" He looked at me and he says, "Would you be interested in that job? You would be perfect for that job." See, God put him in my life. He was drivin' his bike with his kid.

I have a beautiful job, educating our children and our seniors about fire safety. For the little guys, we have our "Survive Alive" house downstairs. It's like a theatrical experience for them. We have a little house, we smoke it up, the kids lay in bed, we show 'em how to crawl out of bed when they hear the sound of the smoke detector, crawl to the door, feel the door, open it if it's not hot, crawl out--and it's a regular house, they go through the front room, or through the kitchen or through the window, depending on what scenario we give them. This is hands-on experience. You can't train this in the home.

I just had a meeting with Commissioner Wideman, he's my immediate boss, and he's approved a couple of new things that we're gonna be working with. For example, we're gonna be working to deter kids from smokin'. Believe it or not, cigarettes and smoking materials cause a third of the fires in the nation. Fifty percent of the fires in institutions are caused by careless cigarette smoking! We save lives with our job. If we do a good job, the rest of the department would be out of business.

I'm head of public education for the city of Chicago. You know how important that is? That's probably the most important job on the fire department. And I have it!

But will you ever again feel the satisfaction of pulling a person out of a burning building?

In the trunk of my car I carry my fire gear, my coat, my mask, I have everything there. So if I'm drivin' down the street and there's a burning building, you know that George is gonna go right in there and pull somebody out if I have to. If God gives me that opportunity, I'll do it again.

Postscript: In December 2001, George lost the public education job. "I got demoted," he told me cheerfully. "You do a good job, you get demoted. That's what happens in the city that works. They gave the job to a guy who worked under me. It was a shock but I got over it. Now I'm captain of Tower Ladder 14 at Chicago and Cicero. It's a busy station. We're puttin' out a lot of fires. It was probably a blessing in disguise: now I have time to get into other things. I'm doing embroidery now. You give me your logo, we can put it on a cap, a jacket. And I'm working with O'Leary's Chicago Fire Truck Tours. You could put it in the paper that this is what I'm doing now. We give a beautiful tour. We'll be giving rides on our fire truck at Engine 98, right near the Water Tower, on the afternoon of November 2, and we'll be at the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival the Saturday before Thanksgiving. We're giving Pluto or somebody a ride down Michigan Avenue."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert A. Davis.

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