By Bob Rakow
February was a difficult month for Oak Lawn’s firefighters, having battled two house fires and witnessed six deaths.
Those firefighters were recognized for their efforts at Tuesday night’s village board meeting by receiving commendations from Fire Chief George Sheets. It was also announced that Michael Bowman was promoted to the assistant fire chief post. He was the firefighter who witnessed a horrific suicide before battling a Feb. 26 blaze.
John P. Conta allegedly killed his parents—John and Janice Conta—and nephew at the family home in the 9800 block of 51st Avenue. Conta then set the house on fire and killed himself with a gunshot while in the house’s garage, police said.
The body of Conta’s nephew, 5-year-old Matthew Meier, was discovered in the house later in the day, they said. Family members celebrated the boy’s fifth birthday at the house the previous night, police said.
Bowman was on his way to work and responded to the blaze. He entered the garage and saw John P. Conta kill himself after the gun was pointed at him, officials said.
“Assistant Chief Bowman jerked back thinking he might be shot,” Sheets said. “This happened in a matter of seconds.”
Bowman witnessed the shooting and then joined his colleagues fighting the fire—action that went above and beyond the call of duty, Sheets said
He said that Bowman’s ability to battle the fire after witnessing the suicide is unlike anything he’s witnessed in his 31-year career.
Bowman and firefighter Teddy Moran were awarded the department’s Medal of Honor for their efforts during the fire.
The first fire occurred in early February on the west side of the village.Kathryn Lomec, 73, was pronounced dead Feb. 8 shortly after a blaze at her house in the 10100 block of Lawrence Court, officials said. Her sister and caretaker, 74-year-old Mary Bruce, died three days later at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County.
Although Bruce ultimately died, the efforts of firefighters and paramedics allowed her to live a few more days, time that she was able to spend time surrounded by family, Sheets said.
Sheets also lauded residents who live near the 51st Avenue fire for supporting his crews during the second fire.
“That’s what brings a community together,” Sheets said.
Palermo’s Pizza fed the firefighters, who were at the scene for 12 hours in freezing temperatures. Another resident showed up with White Castle food, while others opened their homes to let emergency personnel use the bathroom and warm up.
“They didn’t have to do that, but they did,” Sheets said. “We were hungry. We were cold.”
Tuesday’s ceremony began with a moment of silence for the six people who perished as a result of the two tragedies.
“Your fire chief is very proud of each and every one of you,” Sheets said at the end of presentation, which also recognized firefighters from Evergreen Park and Hometown.