EFFINGHAM — Hearing stories about the St. Anthony Hospital fire, which happened 70 years ago this month, was common when Jim Wolters was a young boy, although he was just a toddler when the fire broke out and killed 77 people.
Wolters would later have a personal connection to the fire.
“My mother-in-law was in the hospital fire,” said Wolters. “She jumped from a second-story window and that jump resulted in breaking her back. She was laid up for quite awhile.”
Learning about Effingham's historic hospital fire was a part of what nudged Wolters into a 50-year career in the fire service industry.
Now 72, the Effingham resident recently hung up his helmet and gear for the last time, when he retired as a paid-on-call firefighter. He had most recently served as the second assistant chief for the Effingham Fire Department.
Wolters married Carol “Cookie” Springer, who Wolters said was a caring individual who became a registered nurse. The two were married for 49 1/2 years before her death about a year ago. They have three children and six grandchildren.
Her mother, Clara Springer Hardiek, was hospitalized at St. Anthony Hospital for childbirth at the time of the fire. The baby didn't survive.
“She told us that she heard a lot of commotion and she opened her hospital room door to see flames, so she knew she couldn't get out that way,” said Wolters.
Wolters had other motivation to join.
“I had a brother-in-law who was a few years older than me who had joined the volunteer department and he also encouraged me to join,” he said.
At the age of 23, Wolters became an Effingham volunteer firefighter in 1969. Later volunteers were made part-time employees, as “paid-on-call” staff. He also had a long full-time career for 44 years at Dan Hecht Chevrolet Toyota, where he was the service department manager. He retired in 2008 from there.
“I didn’t change my mind too often,” said Wolters, about his long marriage and two long-time careers.
Wolters served under six different fire chiefs, including Chief Charles Chamberlain, who served during the hospital fire era. Other chiefs were Logan Van Dyke, Maurie Braun, Nick Althoff, Joe Holomy and in recent months, Bob Tutko.
Holomy said Wolters' years of experience, drive and dedication never faltered.
“He's an awesome man,” said Holomy. “He's got a heart of gold and a wealth of knowledge. He's always looking to help others. I'm very fortunate to call him a friend and a colleague.”
Holomy transformed the volunteers to becoming part-time paid workers.
“When I came on, the volunteer organization was separate from the fire department,” said Holomy. “I incorporated them into the structure as a part-time employee. I also wanted to change the training standards and I worked with Jim on that at that time.”
Tutko has worked with Wolters for eight months, but was left with a good impression rather soon.
“I found him to be very involved and very knowledgeable,” said Tutko. “I'm definitely going to miss him. It's remarkable to dedicate 50 years of his lifetime to the city, the residents and the fire department.”
Wolters served on the training committee and helped establish a training schedule. He was helpful in the MABAS Academy, the MABAS 54 Honor Guard, and even served as the Effingham representative in the honor guard at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Maryland. In 2007, he was the recipient of the Firefighter of the Year award.
For five years, he served as regional representative for the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association. At least twice a year, he would take a 24-hour ride-a-long with the Chicago Fire Department.
“It was very good experience,” said Wolters. “You can see a lot up there,” he said.
He's had some training in arson investigation, although he was never certified.
“There are a lot of ways to find out a cause of a fire,” said Wolters. “Not in every case, but most often they can find a cause.”
“His wealth of knowledge was something nobody else could compare to because he's witnessed so much with the fire department and the city in 50 years,” said Holomy.
Tutko said the department held a “Walk-Out Ceremony” with a pager announcement thanking him for his 50 years of service. He was also issued the flag that flew over the fire station and a double line of retired and current firefighters bid him a farewell outside the fire hall.
Wolters has seen plenty of changes, but all for the better. Firefighter training became much more involved, even for the part-timers.
“We had just the basics when I first got on, and over time it become more involved,” said Wolters. “Now you have to earn a Firefighter II certification, which is at least a three-month program. We also train one night each week. Also, when there are special trainings, often that is on Saturdays.”
He earned certifications in hazardous materials, roadway extrication, and driving a fire truck.
“Training was a lot of work and took a lot of time,” said Wolters. “And being involved for that long, you have ups and downs – but mostly ups.”
He added that the newer equipment and technology made the job safer.
“When I started, basically, I had a pair of hip boots, a helmet and a glorified black raincoat,” said Wolters. “Today we have full bunker gear, helmet, hood, gloves, and air packs. In the beginning, we didn’t have SCBAs (self-contained breathing apparatuses). We’d crawl in and hit the fire, and take as long as we could. Then, two more would come in and do it again. Now you have a 30-minute tank to breathe with in a fire, complete with a full face mask.”
In addition, the firetrucks are much safer and the technology is more useful than decades ago, he said.
“They have thermal imaging cameras that help find hot spots and to help find people inside a smoke-filled home.”
“The hotter an object is the more it shows up on the camera,” said Wolters. “We take it in on every fire call. We can also use it on a structure fire as a walk around to show where hot spots are.”
Inside a structure when panned across a room, the thermal technology allows an image of a person to show up, because it checks for the change in temperatures.
Working under six different fire chiefs, he said each one was about keeping the firefighters safe.
“All of the chiefs in my career had the safety of their men and women foremost,” said Wolters.
During Wolters' first several years, there were many outlying areas that weren't protected with a fire district, such as Watson and Shumway, and it took firetrucks time to get to those locations from Effingham. As a result, many homes were lost. Now those areas how their own districts.
Another change Wolters noted is part-time crews now respond to all structure fires in the city and “all calls” to the interstates due to safety concerns with traffic and extrication.
“When we have an 'all call,' that's when the paid on call would go,” said Wolters. “Anything on the Interstate we'd go because of safety factors and road blockage. And any kind of structure call, whether it is an alarm, smoke report, or fire, we go.”
Wolters clearly recalls several large fires he responded to in Effingham, including those at the Abe Lincoln Motel, the Ramada Inn Hotel, the Best Western Hotel, Ludwig Lumber Company and Mid-State Lumber Company.
“These brought about long hours, evacuation and lots of fire,” said Wolters. “I carried a child out of a hotel fire at the Best Western during the evacuation, and I escorted the child's mother to EMS.”
He said everyone was OK.
The Effingham Fire Department handles about 600 calls a year. From those calls, about 250 are “all calls” that would include him and other part-timers.
“While I couldn't answer all of them, I'd estimate at least 150 calls or so a year I was there,” said Wolters.
He said he had the opportunity to apply to become a full-time firefighter, but he was happy with his full-time job, so he opted to just stay as an on-call firefighter.
“My wife worried, but she got used to it,” said Wolters. “She always backed me 100 percent.”
The decision to retire was bittersweet, said Wolters.
“I just want to relax for a little bit,” said Wolters. “I don't want to get up in the middle of the night. That part I won't miss. I want to take some time to revitalize and think about what I do want to do.”
“But, I'll miss the calls,” he said. “I'll sit and wonder and visualize it in my mind.”
Wolters said he would miss the brotherhood of firefighters as well, but then quickly added, “No, I think I'll still have that actually.” He plans to stay involved with the Effingham Retired Firefighters Association.
Tutko said an invitation has been extended to Wolters to attend business meetings, because his decades of knowledge can still be useful to the department.
Wolters said his six grandchildren will keep him busy and he expects to do some volunteering.