9/11 Still Producing FDNY Casualties

Several scarred firefighters fighting to keep their pensions because of failed drug tests.

John Schroeder lost everything on 9/11 - and now it's cost him his job as well.

As a hose man for Engine Co. 10, Schroeder was one of the first firefighters to respond to both the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, reaching the 23rd floor of the north tower during the latter catastrophe.

"I saw more people die that day than anyone can imagine," he told The Post.

Afterward, he struggled to cope with the staggering loss of 55 friends and colleagues. "I turned to the drink, the whole department did," he said.

Now Schroeder, 49, is one of several scarred firefighters fighting to keep their pensions because of failed drug tests, caught between the sympathy of their colleagues and the zero-tolerance policy of the Fire Department.

Schroeder tested positive for cocaine during a random FDNY drug sweep on Oct. 24, 2004. He denies using cocaine and claims he's been sober for more than a year. His lawyers argue he's a victim of a flawed test.

The department moved to fire Schroeder through a disciplinary hearing. In a highly unusual ruling, an administrative-law judge in August 2007 recommended that the 18-year veteran be allowed to retire with dignity.

Judge Kevin Casey didn't comment on the drug-test results but suggested the FDNY allow the decorated firefighter to complete his application for a disability pension. That way, Casey said, Schroeder, who suffers from lung disease that he believes came from breathing toxic Ground Zero air, could keep his health benefits.

At almost the same time, another 9/11 firefighter, Thomas Kelly, was undergoing a similar trial. Kelly admitted after a failed drug test that he had used cocaine. He argued that dismissal and loss of his pension and benefits was too harsh a penalty. But the FDNY still fired him.

Kelly asked the Appellate Division to review Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta's decision. In November, the court upheld Scoppetta's firing of Kelly.

Three weeks later, Schroeder, who had remained on modified duty while fighting his case, was also fired.

"They all just walked by me like I was a display in a zoo," he said, referring to his last years at the FDNY.

FDNY spokesman Frank Gribbon said the department's zero-tolerance policy for drug-test failures is "applied equally and consistently in all cases," but that firefighters who come forward for counseling on their own accord don't face the threat of job loss or punishment.

In all, 29 firefighters have failed drug tests since the random screenings were initiated in 2003. The policy came after a collision of two fire rigs; one of the firefighter drivers tested positive for cocaine.

At least four of those failed tests were tied to firefighters suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder due to their work on or shortly after 9/11, the firefighters union says.

That list includes firefighter Joseph Maresca, who was caught buying cocaine from an undercover cop near Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, with his 6-year-old daughter in his car.

An administrative law judge just ruled that Maresca also should be allowed to retire with pension and health benefits intact. His case is still pending before the FDNY.

Department doctors have diagnosed Schroeder with post-traumatic stress disorder and severe lung damage.

"I can't breathe," he said. "It's not getting easier."

But now Schroeder is minus pension and medical benefits.

On 9/11, he stopped on the 23rd floor of the north tower to help a colleague from Engine Co. 5 who had suffered a heart attack.

"That morning, my life was complete," he said. "Within a second, we looked up and everything was suddenly out of control."

As the south tower came crashing down, he began to rush out. But he got trapped for a while because of a collapsed stairwell, escaping the north tower moments before it collapsed.

He spent the following weeks toiling on "the pile," sifting through debris, finding body parts. He was temporarily placed on light duty and assigned to the FDNY's counseling unit after he discovered the remains of a friend.

Those days continually replay in his head.

"One day I'd like to wake up and not know what it's like to have 9/11 hitting me in the face like a Muhammad Ali left hook," he said.

Schroeder noted that he could have retired after 9/11 but stayed on to help train new firefighters.

But Schroeder, whose father was also a firefighter, now regrets that decision.

"It's an embarrassment that I was ever a fireman," he said.

Republished with permission of The New York Post.

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