I have been assigned to a truck company for most of my career in the New York City Fire Department. In 1994, however, I took a detail to drive the Safety Operating Battalion for about a year. My time there was certainly an interesting and eye-opening experience for me. One of the many duties of the Safety Operating Battalion was the investigation of all major apparatus accidents within the FDNY. In the early-morning hours of July 8, 1994, I responded to my first major accident with the Safety Operating Battalion, and that response changed my career and my life forever.
Photo From Author’s collection
The account of this apparatus accident will have a dramatic impact on anyone who reads it, but it should have an even more profound effect on anyone who drives an emergency vehicle.
We responded to the Borough of Queens, to the Flushing section near Shea Stadium, the home of the New York Mets baseball team, and Flushing Meadows, site of the U.S. Tennis Association’s National Tennis Center, where the U.S. Open tennis tournament is played. The accident involved an FDNY ladder truck responding as the second-due ladder company to what would turn out to be a false alarm, the second such alarm received from that location within a half hour. The time was around 2:30 A.M.
It was determined in a post-crash analysis that the ladder truck had a red light and was going 20 mph as it entered the intersection and struck a small gray sports car that had the green light and was traveling at 30 mph. It was further determined that the ladder truck struck the car on the passenger’s front quarter panel and proceeded to drag the car 77 feet down the street.
As we responded to the scene, all of those thoughts that run through a firefighter’s mind were running through my mind. What might we have? How bad would it be? As we pulled up to the scene, it was a sea of emergency vehicles and we had to park quite far away. As I walked down the street toward the accident vehicles, I could see only the rear of each vehicle. Ironically, the first thing that I noticed on the gray civilian vehicle was a fire department union sticker (Uniformed Firefighters Association of the City of New York) displayed prominently in the rear window.
All of the sudden, my body was overcome with a sick feeling, one of those feelings that puts your guts in a knot. Yes, the fire apparatus, an FDNY ladder truck, had actually hit one of our own people. As I walked closer, it was obvious that we had done some real damage. I quickly learned that two civilians had been transported to the local trauma center in bad shape and that one of the victims, the driver, was the daughter of an FDNY fire marshal, and she would die a few days later.
I have a great belief in God, and I have always believed that things happen for a reason and that everyone on this earth is part of God’s grand plan. I helped complete the investigation, finished my detail at the Safety Operating Battalion and was returned back to the firehouse within a year. Then, I was promoted to lieutenant and a short time later was assigned to my present assignment in the Bronx at Ladder Company 27.
A Twist of Fate
We now roll the clock ahead five years, when the fire department started what it called the “rotation program.” Probationary firefighters would be assigned to a firehouse once they completed probie school, but after their first year, they would rotate to two other firehouses, generally in two different boroughs, to gain valuable experience in different parts of the city before being returned back to their originally assigned company. During this time, we received a rotated firefighter from Ladder 176 in Brooklyn to work a year in Engine Company 46, the engine housed with Ladder 27. His name was Tommy Daly.
At about the same time, I was summoned to the Corporation Counsel, a city “think tank” of lawyers who spend all day defending the City of New York in lawsuits. My task that day was to appear before a Corporation Counsel lawyer to give a deposition in the Flushing accident case. It was in December, just before Christmas. I was informed that the case would probably go to trial in January and that I had better plan to be available to testify.
After my deposition, I went back to the firehouse and relieved my captain, and informed him that I might be tied up in court for the month of January. He asked why and I told him that it had to do with the Flushing wreck. He then informed me that the firefighter that we had gotten on the rotation a few months ago, Tommy Daly, was the brother of the woman who was killed in the accident. Like I said, God works in mysterious ways. I kept this secret for six months. In that time, I was never called to testify and later found out that the case had been settled out of court, as many of these cases are.
It was now July and I was headed out of the firehouse for the last time before my vacation started. I was about to get into my car when Tommy Daly approached me. He said to me, “You know people in the fire department. Could you find out what happened with that accident that had claimed the life of my sister?” We talked for a long time. I had liked Tommy since the moment I met him, he had such a presence and it became apparent to me in my first few months of knowing him that he was going to be a very good firefighter. He had all the right stuff.
Effects of a Tragedy
Tommy asked me whether I would be willing to meet with his Mom, which I agreed to. When we met, Joan Daly and I too talked for a long time. I asked her whether she would be willing to help prevent a similar occurrence and she said she would. She is a gutsy lady. She agreed, with her remaining daughters, to try to put pen to paper and put into words their family’s experiences and emotions from that fateful day in July 1994 to the present.
I have on several occasions taken firefighter/operator accounts of serious or fatal apparatus wrecks and how they and their families were affected. This is the first time anywhere that I am aware of where the family of a victim of a fatal fire truck accident was willing to share the effects of their tragedy on their family with us, the fire service. This account will have a dramatic impact on anyone who reads it, but should have a profound effect on anyone who drives an emergency vehicle. Here is Patti’s Story.
PATRICIA ANN DALY 2/23/1975 – 7/11/1994
On July 7, 1994, my 19-year-old daughter, Patricia Ann Daly, also known as Patti, left the house to meet her friends. She said, “Good night, Ma, see you later.” I went to bed at my usual time. It was a hot summer night, so I put on my bedroom air conditioner. Sometime after midnight on July 8, the phone rang. Someone on the line said they were from New York University Hospital and they wanted to speak to me about Patti. I hung up on them, thinking my daughter Patti was home and asleep upstairs. The phone rang again and this time when I answered it I listened. They said Patti had been in a car accident and they needed permission to operate on her and remove a damaged spleen. I gave them permission and said I would be right there.
My husband and I left immediately for the hospital. During the short ride there, I kept thinking this was no big deal. People lived without a spleen. We were asked to go into a room and wait. Patti was in surgery. During the time we waited, several people came in to speak with us. I have very little memory of what they said. I just wanted to see my daughter. At some point during this waiting period, then-Fire Commissioner Howard Safir came in and spoke to us. It was at this time that I found out that Patti’s car had been hit by a fire truck. Still, I was not aware how critical Patti’s condition was. All I kept hearing was that Patti was stable. They didn’t know how extensive her injuries were.
When I finally got to see Patti after her surgery, she was unconscious. I thought she just did not come out of anesthesia. It wasn’t until much later that morning I was told she was in a coma. At this point, I wanted all my other children with me. I contacted Barbara, Thomas and Kathleen and again waited. We waited three days. Friends and relatives drifted in and out of the hospital. On July 11, more tests were done on Patti and we were told that Patti had a brain stem injury and there was no hope. Patti was declared brain dead and then she was gone.
The next days with the wake and funeral were again a blur. I don’t remember much. What I do remember was my youngest child was dead. She had been killed in a car accident with a fire truck. We would later come to find out that the fire truck that killed my daughter was responding to a false alarm, the second of the night to that same location, which added to the incomprehensibility of it all. All I knew was that I was never going to see her again.
What the Witnesses Saw
After reviewing the police report and hearing witness accounts, we began to confirm what we thought all along: Patti was a responsible person who always did the right thing. She had recently purchased the car she was driving that night herself and was very proud of it. She took very good care of it and was a cautious driver. She was always the person who reminded others to put on their seatbelts. The police determined she was driving well within the speed limit, she had her windows rolled down, the radio was at a low volume and she had a green light, the right of way. Witnesses, both in her vehicle that night and strangers in the park located at the scene of the accident, said they did not recall hearing any sirens until the impact and did not recall observing any flashing emergency lights. Witnesses said the fire truck went through the red light while Patti was going through the green. They said that the fire truck did not stop or appear to slow down at the intersection when it approached the red light. I have come to learn that standard fire safety precautions indicate that when approaching an intersection where an emergency vehicle has to go through a red light, the emergency vehicle should slow down or come to a stop and make sure it is safe before proceeding through.
At the hospital, Patti was tested for drugs and alcohol and the tests came back negative. To the best of our knowledge, the driver of the truck was not tested for drugs or alcohol; if he was, the results were not released to our family or lawyers. Rumors were floated our way from various sources regarding the possible “condition” of the driver. We will never know if he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs and if it played a factor in my daughter’s death. Why wasn’t he tested? The available information seemed to show that Patti did everything correctly that a driver possibly could. It became increasingly clear to us that the driver of the fire truck did not take the necessary safety precautions while operating an emergency vehicle. Was it because it was their second trip responding to a location where a false alarm had been called in previously that night?
A Call for Change
The next couple of months, I hurt so bad. I had a terrible pain in my chest that would not go away. I went through the motions of being alive. I didn’t know what to do. I decided that no family should ever have to go through what we went through. I contacted a lawyer so that we could make a statement: The New York City Fire Department needed to change. They had to be held responsible for their actions.
Whenever I showed up for preliminary hearings and depositions, the men involved in the accident were all joking and laughing and talking among themselves. No one showed any remorse. At the deposition, the driver of the truck was questioned about the incident and he said, “I don’t recall.” When asked, “You don’t recall?” he simply replied, “That happened almost three years ago, how could you expect me to remember that?” I thought, how could you not recall the day someone died as a result of your actions? My family and I have to remember it every minute of every day for the rest of our lives. I hated them for what they did to Patti. She was a healthy, happy, 19-year-old girl with so many years ahead of her.
As we waited several years for the case to come to court, I periodically attended meetings held by Compassionate Friends of Rockville Centre, a support group for parents who have lost children. In my grief, I wanted to reach out to others who were experiencing similar pain. With the help of two women who had also lost children, I co-founded Compassionate Friends of Flushing.
Life was going on for the rest of my family. My husband retired from the fire department as a fire marshal. My oldest daughter, Barbara, went through the FBI Academy and is now a Special Agent assigned to the New York Office. My son, Tom, went to the Fire Academy and was now assigned to Ladder 176 in Brooklyn. Patti’s death was tearing me apart. I felt that there must be a bigger plan that I was not aware of. Maybe my son was in the fire department to make a difference. My daughter, Kathleen, attended Fordham University and had a full-time job and is currently a Surveillance Specialist for the FBI in New York City. Life was moving on for three of my children. My fourth and youngest daughter is gone at the young age of 19. Patti will never graduate from college, have a career, get married or have children. We will never share the events she might have accomplished and she will not be there to share ours. We will never see her smiling face or hear her playful laugh or feel her loving touch.
Not a day goes by when I am not reminded of that night when I lost my daughter. I live in the same neighborhood as the fire company that was involved in the accident. I see the truck that hit Patti’s car on a daily basis. In 1999, five years after Patti was killed, my family discovered, through local newspaper coverage, that all 54 firefighters and officers stationed at the Flushing firehouse where the firefighters responsible for Patti’s death worked were being transferred. This rare move was due in part to “poor performance and a lack of discipline there.” (The New York Times, Metro Section, Oct. 27, 1999, page B1.)
We learned that a firefighter assigned to this house was fired in 1997 after it was discovered he was calling in false alarms from a pay phone at the firehouse as part of a plan to further the disability claim of a co-worker. We learned that this firehouse went through a series of seasoned and experienced commanders who complained about how difficult it was to manage their subordinates there. We learned about the deliberate slower response time members of this firehouse took responding to medical calls. How could we not think they were complicit in Patti’s death?
Apparently, questionable activities were going on at this firehouse for years and nothing was done about it. How am I supposed to believe that on the night of the accident the people in that truck followed proper procedures while responding to a false alarm? How am I supposed to believe that safety was the number-one priority at this firehouse if the entire house all the way to the top had not only their integrity questioned, but were transferred to other houses because they could not be trusted to carry out their routine duties in a responsible manner? All these important questions I may never know the answer to, but I can only speculate that my daughter may still be alive today and be celebrating her 30th birthday.
The City of New York settled our case out of court. A law was passed in 1996 called the Patti Daly Law, which makes it a felony (formerly a misdemeanor) if someone calls in a false alarm and a person dies as a result. The woman charged with calling in the false alarm the night Patti was killed spent less than a year in jail.
I only hope that today, more than 10 years later, safety is the number-one priority in all firehouses everywhere so that accidents such as Patti’s can be avoided at all costs. It seems that the current FDNY commissioner, Nicholas Scoppetta, has a zero-tolerance policy for harmful behavior on or off the job, such as drinking and driving, and drug or alcohol abuse.
Someone told me once that everyone is put on earth for a reason and when they have accomplished what they were put here for, they go home. I feel that in Patti’s short 19 years she must have done so much and touched so many lives. Patricia Ann Daly was a wonderful daughter, sister, friend and person, and no one can ever take that away from her. There will always be emptiness in our lives and our hearts.
I would like to thank the Daly family for their contribution to this month’s column. Drive as if lives depend on it, because they do, and don’t forget to buckle up.
Michael Wilbur will present “Anatomy of a Rollover Accident and How to Prevent Them” at Firehouse World 2005 in San Diego, Jan. 31-Feb. 4.
Michael Wilbur, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department, assigned to Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx, and has served for the past five years on the FDNY Apparatus Purchasing Committee. He has consulted on a variety of apparatus related issues throughout the country. For further information access his website at www.emergencyvehicleresponse.com.