A North Carolina company has stopped selling a controversial decal commemorating Chicago's most-recent fallen firefighters and has lodged a complaint with the city's Inspector General claiming harassment.
Firefighters claim the company was being opportunistic and trying to profit from tragedy, but the company says it's all just a big misunderstanding.
Less than one day after Chicago firefighters Corey Ankum and Edward Stringer were killed in a building collapse after battling a fire, North Carolina-based Phoenix Graphics Online created and offered for sale a memorial sticker to honor the men.
The four-inch decal cost $3 apiece.
"I see the benevolence that comes out of the fire service on a day to day basis here," said Phil Little, who has helped collect decades of memorabilia in advance of a 2011 opening of the first-ever Fire Museum of Greater Chicago. "For somebody to either abuse that or try to make a dollar off that is just a slap in the face to all the wonderful work that the firefighters and paramedics do."
But the company, which bills itself as the nation's largest dealer of emergency-service stickers, said it planned all along to donate 75 percent of all profits from the stickers to the families of the fallen firefighters.
The company's co-owner, Tommy Christenbury, said he worked 23 years as a paramedic before an injury seven years ago left him permanently disabled.
"I got no support. No nothing, and ended up losing absolutely everything I had except for my home," he said during a telephone conversation on Tuesday. "It was our intention that there had to be other people going through the same thing, and that if I could help, we wanted to help."
- I am sorry for the loss your dept has suffered. As a Paramedic of 23 years I know the dedication of Emergency Service personnel and the loving family that supports them. Our hearts go out to the two firefighters that gave their all to the dept and citizens of Chicago along with the ones injured in this disaster.
As a decal mfg. we have designed a memorial decal and would like to donate the proceeds from the sale of these decals to the fallen firefighters family. This is not something that we want to personally profit from.
Please advise an address and directions for donating the proceeds.
Instead of sending his email to any of the top brass in the department, however, Christenbury directed it to the webmaster of ChicagoFD.org, a private organization of Chicago Fire Department boosters.
Fire department spokesman Larry Langford said no one ever received Christenbury's message. The department's personnel uses email addresses ending with @CityofChicago.org.
"If the e-mail had been directed to the Fire Commissioner or even a phone call to his office, or mine, we would have made sure the gentleman was connected to the proper organizations to further discuss his proposition," he wrote in a statement.
In the days since creating the decal, Christenbury says he was maliciously smeared by a Facebook page urging the boycott of his company, by a "please do not patronize" alert sent by firefighter union members and by numerous profanity-laced emails sent to him.
Christenbury shared 15 of those emails with NBC Chicago, some of which read in part:
- "My brothers and I in Chicago are disgusted with your opportunistic way of making money on behalf of our fallen brothers. Please pull that b------t off of your site and ebay or you will feel the wrath of 5000 grieving brothers and sisters in Chicago."
"I am sickened that you would capitalize on OUR loss for your own profit. Please know that I will contact everyone I know in the service throughout this country to boycott your business. Your should certainly be ashamed."
"Have you no shame earning money from the brave dead? Do the right thing and give all earnings for your tacky endeavour to the familes of the fallen firefighters. Here's hoping Santa leaves big stinking turds in your stockings, for coal lumps just won't do."
Christenbury said he stopped selling the decals on on eBay on Monday. He said they were pulled from his site over the weekend.
Ultimately, he said he sold 24 stickers and is still interested in donating the proceeds from the sales to the families of Stringer and Ankum. He said he just needs someone from the Chicago Fire Department to reach out to him to tell him where to send the $72 he collected.