Office of the Public Guardian honors colleagues lost in fire


Lou Foglia

From left, Maggie Greenlees, Kishá Jones and Julie Sollinger made blankets on Oct. 21 for Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital patients during an event honoring co-workers who died in a 2003 fire.


Employees of the Cook County Public Guardian’s office made blankets and activity packets for the children at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital on Oct. 21  to honor co-workers who died in a 2003 fire.

Every year, the public guardian’s office selects a service project to honor the memory of one of the three colleagues lost in the Cook County Administration Building’s fire in 2003. For the 12th anniversary, the office volunteered at Lurie Children’s Hospital, 225 E. Chicago Ave., to honor the memory of former co-worker John Slater III, who was known for his love of working with children. 

In past years, it has honored Sara Chapman by doing projects at PAWS, and Maureen McDonald by doing work with Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly, said Susan Sherock, assistant deputy public guardian.

The Office of the Public Guardian, “is the only law office of its kind in the country that combines the legal representation of abused and neglected children, children in custody/divorce cases, and disabled elderly wards,” according to its website.

Alpa Patel, assistant deputy public guardian, said the employees chose Lurie Children’s Hospital not only to honor their lost colleague, but also because of the help the hospital provides for their clients.

“They do such wonderful work, and we represent 6,000 children who are abused and go through the child welfare system, and oftentimes Lurie is the first responder in terms of providing services for our clients,” Patel said.

Julie Pesch, public affairs director at Lurie Children’s Hospital, said the blankets and activity packets will be used as prizes for the children.

“We are so pleased that [the Office of the Public Guardian] chose us as their charity this year because they choose a different charity every year, and this certainly fits in with their mission, which is to serve children,” Pesch said. “We average about 200 inpatients a day at our hospital, so we can use things like blankets and activity packets for our patients.”

Dawn Lawkowski-Keller, supervising attorney in the financial recovery unit, said she was on the 18th floor of the building the day of the Oct. 17, 2013, fire. She said it was a regular Friday, but around 5 p.m. she was in a co-worker’s office on the 18th floor when they smelled smoke. She said she and her coworker thought the smell was burning popcorn, but then they saw smoke coming through the vents. The smoke was coming from a fire that had started on the 12th floor, according to documents from the U.S Department of Commerce.

Lawkowski-Keller said that announcements were made throughout the building instructing those inside to remain where they were.

“That was the only instruction we were given,” Lawkowski-Keller said.“ 9/11 had occurred only two years before that, and we had all remembered that in those buildings the fire and damage was directly below the people.”

She said they started getting their co-workers together, but at the time, there was an individual working for their office who used a wheelchair. She said they were concerned about getting disabled people out of the building.

“Although we were not supposed to, a bunch of us packed on the elevators before they shut them off and got the person in the wheelchair out,” Lawkowski-Keller said. “By the time we got down, we saw flames coming out of the building.”

Sherock said she was also working on the 18th floor on the day of the fire in 2003. 

“The thing that stands out the most is when we got downstairs and it was chaos,” Sherock said.  “There were so many people exiting the building, the firetrucks were arriving and firefighters were there, but there were not a lot of people directing and telling us what to do. It just seemed when you got down to the ground floor, it was really difficult to know who had gotten out and who was there.”

Sherock said those on the 19th floor were told to go up instead of going down. She also said the doors in the stairwell locked once they were closed and did not reopen.

“The people on the 18th floor were able to access the stairwell that wasn’t filled with smoke,” Lawkowski-Keller said. “The three people that died actually left from the 19th floor, and they were the ones that got trapped in the stairwell that eventually filled with smoke and was locked.” 

Sherock said since the fire, the building has improved its education for tenants regarding fire safety, processes for evacuating the building and relocation sites for staff so people can better account for everyone should an evacuation occur. The building also taught staff how to accommodate people with special physical needs who are unable to maneuver the stairs.

Sherock said they do not have a service project selected for next year but will continue the tradition of honoring something their lost colleagues loved. 

“This is something that has been a tradition for us for many years,” Sherock said. “We see it as something that gives us an opportunity to do a service project to remember our colleagues in a very personal way.”