Kenneth Goodman left his home at 5221 Winthrop about 11 PM on a bitterly cold Sunday night, January 15, 1967 in his 1961 Chevrolet station wagon. He was scheduled to begin his shift at midnight at McCormick Place on Chicago’s lakefront. He was employed as a security guard the Kane Watch Service. Aocording to a Kane ad of the time, he was paid $1.65 per hour and his uniform was supplied.
McCormick Place, at the time was the largest convention center in North America built at a cost of $35 million. It was opened in November 1960, with 486,000 ft.² of exhibit space.
As he began his shift on that freezing night, it was just hours before the opening of the 46th annual National Housewares Manufacturers Association (NHMA) housewares show. 60,000 buyers and sellers were expected to attend the five day show where all the latest products would be on display including many one-of-a-kind prototypes.
But at 2:05 AM, smoke was reported by janitors near one of the booths . They unsuccessfully tried to extinguish the fire by themselves using brooms, pieces of carpet and other nearby items. Instead of helping, this only hindered the call to the fire department.
The Chicago fire alarm office immediately sounded a “still and box” alarm for the north end of McCormick Place. A still and box alarm is normally requested by a battalion chief or officer on the fire scene, but the fire alarm office can proactively transmit a still and box alarm when a large commercial building is reported to be on fire, where there are multiple structures, people trapped , or any other circumstances as they may see fit. A still and box alarm will automatically send extra engines and truck, a deputy chief, additional battalion chiefs and more.
Within five minutes, firefighters arrived with three engine companies and two truck companies.
One of the first to arrive was Chicago fire Department Battalion 9 who radioed “it’s really rolling and I think we will hit a deuce” (slang for the next larger 2-11 alarm). Within minutes the fire then went to a 3-11 alarm followed by a 5-11 alarm fire (the largest).
The 5-11 would include several special alarms for additional equipment. Eventually there were 94 fire apparatus, three fireboats, and more than 2000 firefighters representing 65% of the city’s fire equipment battling the intense blaze.
The then fire commissioner, Robert Quinn quickly assumed command and at one point ordered the fire alarm office to send in “any” available truck companies, engine companies and squads. He ordered “ get them in here”. an unprecedented request to the fire alarm office. There was a lot of additional special equipment ordered to respond including all snorkels, smoke ejectors and other support apparatus.
Firefighters had attempted to thaw seven hydrants before discovering they actually weren’t frozen but they just weren’t connected to the Chicago water supply. They had been disconnected by construction contractors building the interchange of the Stevenson Expressway and Lakeshore Drive. Firefighters then had to rely on fire hydrants more than half a mile away as well as drawing water from the lake using the fireboats .
Fire commissioner Quinn was quoted that the fire was well out of control even when the first units arrived.
Within 45 minutes, two thirds of the building was engulfed including the 1250 booths that would have been selling all those kitchen and household appliances. The convention center roof collapsed. Although the 5,029 seat Arie Crown theater was damaged, it was not destroyed.
The fire was not struck out until 9:48 AM on Monday morning.
The fire was incredibly disruptive to the 60,000 attendees and exhibitors of the housewares show but this disaster caused many more problems. In a time before cellphones, city phone lines were jammed. Illinois Bell lost $350,000 worth of equipment in the fire including a huge wiring network, an eight person switchboard and some 200 payphones.(remember those?)
There were thousands of sudden checkouts at the many hotels. There was chaos at the two airports as some attendees were still arriving and many more were trying to leave.
Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass band had opened on January 12 for one week at Arie Crown but because of the fire relocated on short notice to the Opera house for their remaing performances. The many major conventions to follow the housewares show were of course affected. The National Sporting Goods Show that was to open in two weeks at McCormick Place later moved to Navy pier.
The huge and popular Chicago Auto Show scheduled to open three weeks later, relocated to the International Amphitheater.
The city suffered untold economic damage from the loss of this huge facility and it’s numerous convention bookings.
There was no end of blame to be passed around. There were poorly trained personnel, building construction issues, temporary wiring, lack of automatic sprinklers, the disabled fire hydrants mentioned earlier and a huge amount of combustible material during setup for the housewares show. Because the show was about to open, there were empty packing crates in the aisles that added to the fuel load.
Although it was suspected that the initial smoke came from the vicinity of one booth’s electrical wiring, reports later stated that a search for the origin was inconclusive. There were no sprinklers installed in the main exhibition area on the theory that they would have been ineffective due to the high ceiling.
This tragic and costly fire brought numerous and necessary changes to the Chicago municipal code as well as new ordinances governing exhibition halls, electrical facilities, emergency exits, and firewalls based on the lessons learned.
It was immediately announced that McCormick Place would be rebuilt. Michael Zuber, Age 7 of River Forest sent his $.25 allowance to That Daley to help rebuild.
In January 1971 a new and larger McCormick Place did rise along with a renovated Arie Crown theater. Today, with many additions, the convention facility is now an immense complex and encompasses roughly 2,600,000 ft.²
Kenneth sadly died in the fire and was found about 50 feet north of the main entrance of the main floor about 2:30 PM on Monday January 16th by two firemen of the 9th batallion. They found his body in an aisle, partially covered with debris. His death was ruled to have been as a result of extensive burns and asphyxiation due to carbon monoxide.
He died presumably because he could not find an unlocked emergency exit. Many doors were bolted and locked, some were blocked because of exhibit booths built against them. There were other guards, janitors and maintenance people in the building who did escape the blaze but not Kenneth.
Kenneth James Goodman, age 31 years old was born October 6, 1935 in Hendersonville North Carolina, the son of Edward Monroe Goodman Sr. and Kathryn Fay Dunlap. Kenneth had married Shirley Ann Clayton in 1962 and they had a three-year-old son Steven.
Kenneth who tragically died alone was buried in Shepherd Memorial Park in Naples North Carolina.