Another 'Black Sunday', Another Time for Our Family to Step Up

For the third time in the last five years, a Sunday in the City of New York started with a routine call for a structure fire and ended in tragedy for the men and women of the FDNY, giving further meaning to 'Black Sunday'.

Its tragedies that remind us of the dangerous nature of firefighting. But its also the same that remind us how the firefighters and their families come together to support each other in good times and bad like no other profession possibly can.

Father's Day, 2001. Firefighters Harry Ford, John Downing and Brian Fahey when a blast tore through the hardware store and apartment building on Astoria Blvd.

January 23, 2005. six firefighters were forced to jump from the fourth floor of a burning apartment building in the Bronx in a desperate act to save their lives from the fire consuming the rooms behind them. Two didn't make it, and a third firefighter died in a Brooklyn house fire later the same day.

And then this Sunday. Another routine call. Another tragic ending as a rookie firefighter dies after becoming trapped after a floor collapse in a store blaze.

Just a month ago, the four survivors of that jump in the Bronx told their story to a packed room of firefighters at Firehouse Expo. It was probably one of the most emotional presentations to members of the fire service from those who have experienced a line of duty death first hand.

Two firefighters, Lt. John Bellew and Lt. Curtis Meyran, died in the jump. Later that day firefighter Richie Sclafani was lost in a fire in Brooklyn. The day would become known as "Black Sunday."

For over two hours, Rescue 3's Joseph DiBernardo and Jeff Cool, and Ladder 27's Eugene Stalowski and Brendan Cawley candidly spoke about their emotions, the incident and what they learned from the tragedy.

All of them said the support they received helped them and their families through the recovery process.

"Having a firefighter there (with your family) was so important," Cool said. "They knew the extent of it, they knew how to comfort and could tell stories to keep their minds off of it."

For the FDNY, its another Sunday where more firefighters and their families will need the support of their brothers and sisters. For the rest of us, it drills home the importance of the togetherness of the fire service.

Last week a friend of mine e-mailed me at 2:15 in the morning. He told me that a close friend of his at his department, a 44-year-old Federal firefighter from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland, had been killed in a vehicle accident while on vacation in Louisiana.

I had only met Karl Wagner once, at a Christmas party last year. His wife Nadya -- like my own wife -- was from Russia. They had been married just two years. They were driving across country on his motorcycle when a 74-year-old man made an illegal turn in front of them. Karl died at the hospital that day, Nadya within a few days.

Now, their department must prepare for an unexpected funeral. Her family must be flown in from Russia, special arrangements need to be made. Flowers with the maltese cross are being ordered. His co-workers are being consoled by firefighters from around the world. The chief is leading the planning. Neighboring departments are offering to fill-in and offering their support. For an off-duty death.

At dinner Saturday night, I was reminded by my friend that a funeral isn't a time to mourn the dead. Its a time to celebrate the life of someone taken from us. Remembering them for the person they were. And sharing those moments with those who loved them. And doing this all together with your family -- those who are by blood and those who are by the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of the fire service.

Responding to the routine structure fire, EMS call, extrication ... even the cat stuck up in the tree, is not really 'heroic' -- it is just part of doing the job of a professional rescuer -- volunteer and career.

For FDNY's Joey DiBernardo, who was in an induced coma for 18 days following 'Black Sunday' last year, it was firefighters who took care of him when his family could not. "Late at night when they finally kicked my family out, there were my brothers," he said. "Sleeping next to me and doing whatever needed to be done."

At dinner Saturday, my friend talking about his loss, our wives with us, I remarked how better it would be to die with the one you love -- or doing something you love, than not. Karl Wagner died doing something he loved -- riding across country on his motorcycle, with the one he loved. Likewise, those who die in the line of duty -- like FDNY's Michael Reilly -- almost certainly do so doing something they truly love, and knowing their loved ones left behind will be in good hands.

As we celebrate the life of a rookie FDNY firefighter who died far too young -- and a veteran federal firefighter and his wife taken in off-duty accident far too soon -- we should be reminded that responding as a family when one of our own goes down is what really makes members of the fire service real heroes.

The reporting of Firehouse.com's Paul Peluso and Susan Nichol Kyle was included in this column.

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