(MCT) — CHICAGO — Jameel Johnson didn’t like working in high-rises, his family said, always fearing it would be hard to get out in an emergency.
But when fire struck Tuesday morning inside a 16-story Chicago building where he was installing satellite cable, Johnson, 36, didn’t immediately think about his own escape. Instead, he and another man, John Fasula, 50, rescued an 81-year-old woman from her burning seventh-floor condominium unit.
The two men placed the woman in an elevator and pressed a button to take her down to the lobby. Then they grabbed fire extinguishers from the walls of the smoky hallway and went back to the apartment to try to put out the blaze. Fire officials later found their bodies on the floor outside the woman’s unit.
“He died a hero,” David A. Fields Jr., Johnson’s cousin, said in between sobs. “They died saving a woman’s life.”
On Wednesday, the families of the fire’s two victims gathered separately to remember the ones they lost. Relatives of both men said they weren’t surprised to hear that they risked their lives for someone else.
“That’s how my brother-in-law was,” said Michelle Kozicki, 55, Fasula’s sister-in-law. “There’s never going to be another one like my brother-in-law Johnny. There’s not a bad bone in his body.”
Fasula, of Chicago, was a maintenance manager for the Chicago Transit Authority. At the time of the fire, he was working a side job at the building, his family said. They were not sure of the nature of the job.
Johnson, of Gary, Ind., was working as a private contractor for a cable company at the building, his family said.
It was not clear where the men were when the blaze broke out at about 8:40 a.m. in the elderly woman’s unit, authorities said. They got the panic-stricken woman into an elevator, then returned to her apartment with fire extinguishers, authorities said.
Overcome by smoke, both suffered full cardiac arrest and collapsed, according to officials.
Taken to different hospitals, Johnson and Fasula died later Tuesday morning of the same cause, carbon monoxide intoxication due to smoke inhalation, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
The woman the men rescued collapsed after the elevator doors opened on the first floor. She remains in critical condition at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
The cause of the blaze is undetermined but does not appear suspicious, said Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford. Investigators are looking at electrical equipment, he said.
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Johnson and Fasula were hired by individual residents and not working for the building association, said Michael Rutkowski, owner of First Properties, which manages the condos.
It was not clear who Johnson was working for. Although a truck with a Dish satellite television signage was outside the building, a company spokeswoman said it had no workers at the site and said a third-party contractor may have been involved.
Kozicki said it was common for Fasula, who met his wife in the second grade, to work outside his day job at the CTA. He was hired by the transit agency in 1983.
“He didn’t like to sit still,” she said.
Kozicki said her brother-in-law was someone who always went out of his way for others. Before his father died a few years ago, he often took time off work to get the older man to his doctor’s appointments.
Cook County Commissioner John Daley, who knew Fasula through Fasula’s father, called the fire victim an “outstanding young man” whose death is a “tremendous loss.”
Johnson’s relatives gathered Wednesday evening to make funeral arrangements.
His family said he was a fun-loving man who did whatever he could to take care of his fiance and two children, ages 14 and 3.
Before going to work on Tuesday, Johnson told his family that he hoped the job was a quick service call because he didn’t like being in high-rise buildings. His daughters are taking the news hard, especially his youngest, who still doesn’t understand what happened, relatives said.
“She’s still looking for her father to come home,” said Johnson’s aunt, Rosemary Cohns. “That’s the hardest part.”