October 07, 1985 12:00 PM

The alarm sounded in the freezing predawn hours of a February day, summoning 120 fire fighters to a burning TV-and-stereo store on Chicago’s Northwest Side. The blaze, set by arsonists, was already burning fiercely, and more than 90 minutes passed before it was finally brought under control. By then three members of Hook and Ladder Company 58 lay dead in the rubble: captain Daniel Nockels, 56, firemen Mike Forchione, 29, and Mike Talley, 25. A fourth, Sam Lasco, had also fallen into the flames but had somehow managed to claw his way back to safety before collapsing.

Lasco, 31, spent the next four weeks at the Cook County Hospital burn center, where he underwent two major skin graft operations and began a painful regimen of physical therapy that still continues eight months later. As agonizing as his physical scars have been, however, Lasco’s psychological wounds have burned even deeper. The loss of three close friends and the real possibility that he may never again resume his duties are things that he is still struggling to confront. Recently Lasco spoke to PEOPLE’S Barbara Kleban Mills about those fiery moments of truth last February and his hard climb back.

The only thing special about that day, or so I thought, was that it was Mike Forchione’s 29th birthday. We’d given him a surprise birthday cake earlier, then turned in for the night. But at 3:47 a.m. we got this call to a fire only a mile and a half from the firehouse.

The next thing I knew, we were all on the roof trying to find a hole so we could ventilate the fire. Billy Karda, the fifth man on my team, was on the ladder when the roof caved in. He was yelling for us to get off, but we never heard him because of the power saws we had working. Karda saw it happen, saw the four of us go down and saw me climb out.

He said later he never saw anything so weird, because I was all on fire. I thought for a while that I had found this beam and climbed it back to the roof, but Billy says there was no beam, that there was no way I could have climbed up. It was like I walked up the air or, who knows, maybe up the arm of God or something.

I remember my legs being on fire, and then I remember looking down. That’s how my face caught fire. I remember saying, “Oh my God, I don’t want to die.” And the next thing I remember is being back on the roof’s coping and wanting to fall asleep right there. I was so tired. Two men with Truck 13 saw me crawling out too, and one said all he could see was red: All of a sudden there’s this figure coming out of the hole, like something crawling out of hell, he said.

But there I was, totally in flames, and I’m lying down. The only thing on my mind was sleep. Then I heard a voice yelling at me: “Roll! Roll!” And I rolled over through the snow, over and over again, onto the next roof. A lieutenant on the rescue squad yelled, “What’s your name? Who’re you with?” I said, “Lasco,” and he said, “Lasco, get down this ladder.” And I’m still lying there, tired. But he ordered me down again, and I did it. I walked down that ladder myself.

In the ambulance on the way over to Cook, I started to swell up. Then there was a doctor standing over me, and the next thing I know, a bunch of people are holding me down and scrubbing me. It felt like they were ripping off my skin, but actually they were removing the blisters. I suppose the brushes were very soft, but they felt like they were made of wire.

Have you ever seen a burned chicken? The skin’s all black and bubbled. That’s how my legs were from the knee to the hip, black and bubbled. And then I knew my face looked like that too. But they wouldn’t give me a mirror at first. When they did let me see it, it was gross—pus oozing out and horrible.

Beyond my own injuries, nothing really hit me until I got home and saw videotapes of the fire. I saw them digging the guys out. I saw the body bags. But it was the actual funeral service that really made me sick to my stomach, that hit me emotionally. That, and seeing the agony of their family members. It was like I was in a room without a door.

After the burn unit, I went to stay with my parents at first. I couldn’t break down because I didn’t want to scare them, and they had been through enough already. So I was still holding everything back. When I finally got back to my own apartment, that’s when I really let go. Cry? I cried for two whole weeks. One night I told my girlfriend, Debbie, “I think I’m flipping out.” I asked my best friend to take my guns out of the house; I was so afraid I might do something. One day I had such a feeling of evil, of an evil presence in the house, that I started praying. It was like I could touch evil. I would stay up three or four days at a time without sleep.

I would talk with Billy Karda, the fifth man on our team, and the tears would run down our faces, because everything we had built was gone. The team, the trust, laying our lives on the line for each other. At first I felt that I should have been dead too. Then when I got over that feeling, I thought, well, if I walked out, why couldn’t I have pulled one of the others out? Now I realize that they were dead instantly, that there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

Ever since the fire I’ve had nightmares. The doctor says it’s quite usual for a burn victim. My first night home from the hospital, I dreamed that I was a lion tamer and that the three cats in the cage turned on me. When I woke up, I found I had tried to crawl up the paneled bedroom walls. I had a splinter in my eye that scratched my cornea so bad I had to go to the hospital emergency room.

Billy Karda is also taking it really hard. He’s up to about four packs of cigarettes a day now. Billy’s been real close and helped me a lot. On his day off he’d pick me up and take me to the hospital, and from there we’d go to the different firehouses to see those guys who helped me so much. I really feel I would have been dead if it weren’t for those guys telling me to roll. And then the rescue squad officer, Bob Hoff, who was on the ladder and ordered me down. Those guys saved my life, and no one knows it but me.

When I went to thank Bob Hoff in person, I found that he also had been burned in a fire. I think his father even died in a fire. He was real nice, telling my family to call if I needed any help. I get that a lot. There was another fireman—from Truck 10—who was burned once, and his wife told me the same thing. Firefighters get very, very close to each other, almost like brothers, and the moral support has been just fantastic.

At first I told everybody that I couldn’t wait to get back, that I’d be on the job again in six months. But after three months I couldn’t even do one push-up, and I used to be able to do a couple of hundred. I couldn’t even lift my arm over my head because I was in so much pain. I still have to take a painkiller every time I shave, and even when it’s only 60 degrees outside, it burns my nose in the shade. I can’t even go in the sun because I’m susceptible to skin cancer. How am I going to walk into a 100-degree fire?

One evening I went into a bar with friends, wearing a special facial mask I’m still using to keep down the swelling and speed the healing. After one drink I didn’t feel too good. I knew all those people were looking at me. They weren’t just looking, they were gawking. It was very uncomfortable. My buddies said, “How do you take that?” And I told them, “Well, you become an actor for a while.”

I’m not sure why I became a fireman; it’s not anything I ever thought about as a kid. But to be a fireman is a special thing. Somehow you have to have it in you—the feeling that when the rats and cockroaches come running out, you run in. I’m proud, because firemen are a special breed.

As for the arsonists who set that fire, I’m really mad at them. Maybe I could understand it if they were poor. But if they set that fire out of nothing but greed, I’d like to do to them what they did to me.

I’m just going through so many different stages now. I may have to face up to the fact that I won’t be going back, that I’m handicapped. And I think, “Those five years I put in—did they just go? Are they wasted? Has all that hard work gone?” I just don’t know. Nor do I know if Debbie and I will get married, or if I’ll look for another kind of job. Right now I’m still on full pay from the Chicago Fire Department. If the doctor says I can go back, then I’ll go back. If he says I can’t, then I’ll adjust my life around it and try not to let it get me down.

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