Dec. 22, 2010 — -- Two Chicago firefighters were killed and more than a dozen injured Wednesday after they became trapped in a building while battling a warehouse blaze.
Rescuers dug frantically to free the two, who were among at least four firefighters trapped inside the building. At least 15 other firefighters were hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries.
The Cook County Medical Examiner's Office confirmed the deaths just before 11 a.m. Eastern time.
"Without warning the roof collapsed trapping four firefighters," Chicago Fire Commissioner Robert Huff said at a press conference. "Despite our best efforts at the scene and in the hospitals, two firefighters succumbed to their injuries."
Hoff identified the dead firemen as Edward Stringer and Cory Ankum. Stringer was a 12-year veteran firefighter.
Ankum, a 38-year-old father of three, was a three-year veteran of the Chicago police force when he switched careers and joined the fire department 16 months ago. His youngest child is just one year old.
Ankum's step-brother, Gerald Glover, a 25-year veteran of the fire department, said Ankum told him, "People don't respect police no more. I want to go into the fire department."
Glover said Ankum knew the dangers of the job, but chose a life of public service because he wanted to help people. Ankum was known to have mowed his neighbor's lawns, driven them to doctor's appointments, and looked after their homes while they were away.
Ankum and his fellow crew members responded to an office fire at an abandoned warehouse on the city's South Side at 6:30 a.m. Eastern. The fire was in the back section of the building. The abandoned building at one time housed a dry cleaner.
"Our firefighters were on the roof, and inside doing a search looking for hot spots, when the collapse occurred," Hoff said.
As many as six firefighters were going over hot spots and looking for homeless people that might have sought refuge from the cold.
"They went up on the ladder, ladder went on down. Next thing you know, they must (have) got onto the top part of the roof, and the roof just caved in," witness Kimberly Lofton told WLS.
The collapsed wall trapped the four firefighters, prompting a mayday call.
"The search effort was aggressive ... two members were found immediately, a couple of them we had to use extraction devices," Hoff said.
Dozens of city firemen descended on the burning rubble to search for their injured comrades. For over an hour, they used buckets, their hands and anything they else they could find, to dig through the burning debris.
"Firefighters were removed from different corners of the building, and they worked hard and they got them out fast," Chicago Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff told Chicago ABC affiliate WLS.
Two Firefighters Dead After Roof Collapses
Leaving the scene, the crew members were covered in soot and could be seen embracing each other.
Investigators are still determining what caused the roof to collapse.
"This building had no indication ... that it was in danger of collapse," Hoff said. "There's a lot of things that can contribute to a structure deteriorating. We've had buildings that have no fire in them that just fall down."
This tragedy comes just three days before Christmas and on the 100th anniversary of the Chicago Union Stockyards fire when 21 city firemen lost their lives. Until Sept. 11, 2001, the fire at the stockyards was the deadliest disaster for first responders.
Hoff said that the Chicago Fire Department had not lost two firefighters at one time since 1998.
Four of the 14 injured firefighters were transported from the scene in serious to critical condition, WLS reported.
One firefighter is still hospitalized in stable condition.
"Every firefighter that was there did the best they could do to save their brothers, our major concern right now is their families," Hoff said.
ABC Affiliate WLS and the Associated Press contributed to this report.