A Riverside firefighter who died shortly after helping battle a locomotive fire in 1958 has been memorialized some 61 years later at the Illinois Fallen Firefighter memorial in Springfield.
On May 14, Riverside Fire Chief Matthew Buckley accompanied Joan Labak, the daughter of the late John Furstoss, to the 26th Annual Firefighting Medal of Honor Awards Ceremony where they met with Gov. J.B. Pritzker, state Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Riverside), state Rep. Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) and Illinois Treasurer Michael W. Frerichs.
“I was very surprised,” said Labak of all of the attention downstate. “I felt like I was an honorary star.”
Neither Buckley nor Deputy Chief William Sherman, who is the department’s historian, were familiar with Furstoss’ story. While they knew the name from old departmental log books, they only learned of Furstoss’ fate recently.
About a year ago, Sherman ran into Holly Hultgren, granddaughter of Frank Marousek, the former longtime head of the Riverside water department who was also a volunteer firefighter.
Sherman asked if Hultgren had any materials related to Marousek’s time as a firefighter, and she gave Sherman a scrapbook, which contained an article from the March 20, 1958 Riverside News headlined “Victim heart ailment after giving volunteer fire service.”
Departmental logbooks revealed that Furstoss had signed in as one of those responding to the call of a diesel locomotive on fire at the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (now BNSF) crossing at Longcommon Road.
The call came in at 7:07 p.m. on March 15, 1958. Furstoss appears to have been the first to get to the fire station; he owned a grocery store at 28 E. Burlington St. (the building was demolished just last week).
The fire was extinguished by 7:23 p.m., and Furstoss went back to the grocery store to help his wife, Antoinette, close up shop for the weekend. But at 7:42 p.m., Furstoss began ailing.
“He complained of shortness of breath after returning to the store from the fire, and requested that the fire and police inhalator squad be called,” the Riverside News reported.
The inhalator squad, along with the local health commissioner, arrived and rendered aid. By 9:30 p.m., he apparently responded well enough that the doctor advised him to go home and rest up.
Furstoss died a short time later, at age 42, leaving a wife and four children between the ages of 3 and 15.
Labak said she was attending a dance at Riverside-Brookfield High School that night and returned home to find all of the lights on and her aunt greeting her at the door.
“We went into a bedroom and she told me he passed away,” Labak said. “I didn’t know anything about the story – I knew a fire was involved – until Bill [Sherman] showed me the article.”
Back in 1958, said Buckley, state officials didn’t consider what had happened to Furstoss as a line-of-duty death, although that’s changed in recent years and his death would have been considered such now.
While Furstoss wasn’t officially recognized at the May 14 ceremony, Labak was invited to the ceremony, where a brick paver engraved with her father’s name and dates he served as a Riverside firefighter was added to the plaza surrounding the memorial outside the Illinois State Capitol.
“I was just overwhelmed because he passed away in 1958,” Labak said. “It’s been a long time.”