Remembering Kenneth Wendt

Tom McDermott
Posted 8/31/21

“Fire, fire!” yelled Margaret McCarthy. It was 5:39 a.m. on a Wednesday morning when Margaret awoke to the faint smell of smoke in her apartment.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Remembering Kenneth Wendt

Posted

“Fire, fire!” yelled Margaret McCarthy. It was 5:39 a.m. on a Wednesday morning when Margaret awoke to the faint smell of smoke in her apartment.

She woke her mother and began searching for the fire she knew must be present. She found nothing, but the smoke became more and more dense. Margaret went to the doors of the other four apartments and alerted the tenants. “Fire, fire!” She yelled.

Fourteen people dashed from the second-floor apartments with only the clothes on their back. There was no time to gather personal treasures or family heirlooms. This day, survival was the goal, and survival was enough.

The date was Dec. 27, 1950, two days after Christmas, four days before the new year. The temperature was minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit and the people fleeing the building had to wonder if the conditions were worse inside or outside the building. 

The fire department arrived on scene with a driver and one engine. The department in 1950 was all volunteer except for a day driver and a night driver. Volunteers began arriving on scene in ones and twos. Some walked and some, if lucky, drove. Several had to call a taxi because their cars would not start.

W.A. Hornsby, the owner of the building, was one of those saved by Margaret’s warning. The Hornsby Store was ablaze. There were some flames visible but not enough to explain the density of the smoke. The fire fighters could tell by the pressure behind the smoke that there was a major fire, the problem was they could not be sure where the main body of fire was hiding. 

At around 6 a.m. volunteer firefighter Kenneth Wendt put on a Chemox chemical breathing mask, grabbed an axe, and walked into the burning building in search of the seat of the fire.

Within minutes, the building groaned and portions of the first floor collapsed. The opening in the floor allowed more oxygen to reach the fire and for the next three hours the fire held reign.

The fire fighters knew they had a man inside and they knew he had less than one hour of breathable air. They also knew there was nothing they could do to get inside the building.

Fire fighters (100 in all) from Sycamore, Creston, Ashton, Steward, DeKalb, Oregon, Mt. Morris, and Rockford fought their way to Rochelle to help fight the fire and find the lost fire fighter.

The water that ran off of the fire building froze. The roads, ladders, fire engines, and fire fighters became covered with ice. The water that did not run off of the building froze on the structure.

At hundreds of gallons a minute and slightly over eight pounds a gallon, the weight of the ice caused collapse of the first floor, second floor and finally the roof. Through the night, the firefighters fought the blaze. Frost bite, falls, and exhaustion could not keep the volunteers from the battle.

It was Thursday at 10:20 a.m. when Kenneth was found. He had made it to a small room on the west side of the building on Lincoln Highway. He was in the basement only a foot from the front of the building and his fellow firefighters, who were working that side of the building.

For Clara Wendt and her children, Janice and Rodney, it made little difference. Their father would not be coming home. Kenneth was one of only two Rochelle firefighters to die in the line of duty. He is the only volunteer to give his life protecting his community. He will not be forgotten.

Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum Historian and Rochelle city councilman.