Peter Robertson-Colorblind

From left, Flossmoor Mayor Paul Braun, Capt.
Matt Berk and Firefighter Zach Jebens following 
the presentation of Valor Awards from
the 100 Club of Chicago to Berk and Jebens 
for their actions at the Hagen Lane fire 
last year.
(Provided photo)

Two Flossmoor firefighters were honored this week for their heroic actions during last November’s fatal house fire on Hagen Lane.

Capt. Matt Berk and Firefighter Zach Jebens Tuesday received the Valor Award from the 100 Club of Chicago, an organization dedicated to providing for the surviving spouses and dependents of first responders who lose their lives in the line of duty.

The horrific fire, which broke out just before 8 p.m. on Nov. 7 at 2035 Hagen Lane, led to the death of homeowner Josephine Tropp, who died six days after she was rescued from the blaze.

At the annual Valor Award ceremony, Berk and Jebens joined firefighters and police officers from Chicago and two other suburban communities who were recognized for their heroism. The Valor Award is presented to police officers, firefighters and paramedics who, by their actions, performed above and beyond the call of duty.

Flossmoor Mayor Paul Braun said the village is fortunate to have firefighters like Berk and Jebens. He attended that ceremony at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel.

“Being in the presence of heroes is a very humbling experience, which is exactly what it was like attending the 100 Club Valor Award ceremony for Capt. Berk and Firefighter Jebens,” Braun said. “Capt. Berk and Firefighter Jebens are heroes in every sense of the word and the Village of Flossmoor is grateful and proud to have both men serving our community.”

Berk received the award from his father Greg, who was Flossmoor fire chief for 28 years; Greg Berk was also Wheaton fire chief for 10 years before retiring after 46 years in the fire service.

Flossmoor Assistant Chief Keith Damm narrated the account of events on the night of the fire.

Upon arriving at the house, fire crews found a hellish inferno. Fire was coming out of two sides of the single-story structure. Windows on the front and right sides had broken from the intense heat being radiated from the fire, allowing more oxygen to enter the home and intensify the blaze.

The police officer on the scene informed the crew that they had one person in custody and confirmed that an elderly woman was trapped inside the home.

Because of the large amount of fire, crews moved hoses to the front door. As the crew started to enter the burning structure there were several explosions inside the home. The residents had stored a number of oxygen tanks in the living room, to the right of the entry door, and the tanks were exploding from the intense heat of the fire. Crews said the fire was burning so hot that they could see right through the flames.

Berk directed efforts to evacuate the victim from the house through a bedroom window. Once outside the house, she was taken by stretcher to a Thornton Fire Department ambulance. Jebens led the successful attempt to resuscitate the victim.

Josephine Tropp later died from her injuries. Her daughter, Denise Tropp, told police she started the fire. She has been charged with arson and murder.

In his account of the fire, Damm also thanked the other departments that assisted during the Hagen Avenue blaze, including the Thornton ambulance crew and firefighters from Homewood, Hazel Crest and Chicago Heights.

“While most structure fires are considered to be high-risk/low frequency events, the dangers firefighters encounter increase when there are victims trapped inside, excessive clutter from hoarding and oxygen tanks are exploding from excessive fire and heat conditions,” Damm said. “This fire had all of those things, making any sort of successful outcome highly unlikely.”

However, he said, thanks to a “true team effort” by all the crews from all five departments the victim was successfully rescued and resuscitated.

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