On Jan. 23, 2005, six FDNY firefighters jumped 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 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." It was the first time the city had multiple firefighters die in separate incidents in the same day.
At the Firehouse Expo in Baltimore last Thursday, the four men who survived the jump told their story for the first time to thousands of firefighters from across the country.
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.
"We thought about doing this for a while but kept telling ourselves, 'No, we're not going to do that,' " Cool said about talking to an audience. "But, we're here for the brothers. That's what it's all about. It can happen to you. You might think: 'It's not going to be me,' but if you're not on the top of your game, it could be you."
Cool said that snowy winter morning at the station started out like any other when they received the apartment fire call at 7:59. "We had an early run that morning and we were sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee. No one knew what was about to happen that morning."
Weather played a big part in the day's conditions; something Cool knew would affect their ability to fight fires. "Snow kept coming down; all night long it was coming down."
Winds from the storm reached an excess of 45 mph, with temperatures in the teens freezing over the hydrants at the fire scene.
Stalowski said the call started out as just another fire. "I don't remember entering the building. The only thing I remember is getting to the fire floor. At that point, the smoke condition wasn't bad yet."
He was searching the apartment with Lt. Meyran for signs of civilians or traces of fire. "I went to the left and Lt. Meyran went to the right. We didn't find any civilians and hadn't seen any fire."
Cawley, who was new on the job, was on Stalowski's crew. "Being the new guy in the company, I remember how exciting it was just to go into the building," he said.
Soon, Cool would find a pocket of fire as he opened a wall. That's when he said things took a turn for the worse. "The smoke was a moderate condition at best," Cool said, adding when he found the fire in the wall, "It got very confusing in there, very quickly ... I turned around and there was fire from the floor to the ceiling. We were trapped."
DiBernardo, who was in the room next to Cool and close to Lt. Bellow, said they stayed in the building after receiving calls that there were still civilians in the building. "We knew we were out of water, but we thought there were still people there," he said. "I went to the hallway and saw nothing but orange."
In another part of the building, Stalowski said Engine 24 brought in water, but it only made things worse when combined with the strong winds. "That's when things took off," he said.
As Stalowski, Cawley and Meyran were trapped in a bedroom, they were losing air. The three firefighters did everything they could do, sharing the remaining air. That's when they huddled at an open window to get a breath.
"I really thought the side of my face melted with the heat," Cawley said. Soon after, Meyran fell from the window. "I watched Curt land and it was something I never want to see again," he said. "I thought for sure I'd be the next to fall, holding onto the window. Gene kept coaching me, telling me I could do it.
"When I fell, I hit my left shoulder. I was told we were doing something like 40 to 45 mph going down." Out of the four survivors, Cawley's injuries were the least severe, with the other three confined to wheelchairs months after the fire. Stalowski was the next to fall.