A local fire department is ablaze in controversy for rejecting an athletic amputee's bid to become a firefighter - even after the man passed the grueling physical exam, The Post has learned.
The city of Paterson, N.J., could face a discrimination suit for allegedly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act if it doesn't re-instate Isaac Feliciano to its hiring list.
"It is astounding to us that this goes on in 2007," said Feliciano's lawyer, William Maniatis.
Feliciano has worn a prosthetic limb below his left knee since he was 5 years old, after having that part of his leg amputated because of spinal meningitis.
But the disability has never held Feliciano back.
Quite the contrary - he has always been a physical dynamo.
Feliciano, 29, was a star on his Passaic Tech HS football team, playing linebacker and wide receiver. The sturdy 5-foot-9, 195-pound amputee also played second base for his high-school baseball team.
"It was a blessing in disguise to have this happen to me at a young age," Feliciano said. "As a kid, I had to prove myself. I didn't want any special treatment at all."
He said coaches and school officials were initially wary of having an amputee compete in sports.
"Then they saw me perform and they forgot about it," he said.
Feliciano also competed in the para-Olympics, running 100 meters in just over 12 seconds. He placed third in an open track meet at Montclair State University last year.
The natural athlete said he wanted to give back to the community by becoming a firefighter.
"As a kid, I looked up to firemen because they save people's lives. It's an honorable job," he said.
He knows from experience. Feliciano recalled how firefighters pulled him out of a closet he was hiding in when a fire broke out in his home when he was 4 years old.
Given his physical prowess, it's no wonder that Feliciano initially received good news from New Jersey civil-service officials after taking the physical exam.
Not only did he pass, he ranked 103rd out of the 600 people who took the test.
The physical test required Feliciano and other candidates to labor through an obstacle course in a weighted vest.
He vividly recalls every detail: pulling a hose 50 feet and opening and closing the cap on a hydrant, carrying a massive saw blade 50 feet and around a cone, hauling a 75-pound duffel bag filled with 100 feet of fire hose, retrieving a heavy box tied to a rope atop a pulley and lugging a human-sized dummy.
"You had to run 12 flights of stairs. That was my favorite part. That takes a lot out of you," he said. "When we trained, we'd run 20 flights of stairs just to prepare for it."
Feliciano said some of the test administrators knew he was an amputee because they saw him train.
After he passed the test, the Paterson Fire Department required Feliciano to take a medical exam affiliated with Concentra Medical Center, a city contractor.
It was the first time he thought his amputation might extinguish his dream.
"The doctor said, 'What's that?'
"I said, 'It's my leg. I wear a prosthetic.'
"Until that point, I was very confident," he said.
Feliciano said the doctor made him walk a straight line and hop on both feet.
Concentra's medical report concluded that Feliciano "does not meet criteria" of the National Fire Protection Association and New Jersey State Firemen's Association, citing his "amputated left leg."
Paterson Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Hancock, in a subsequent letter, said the medical report indicated that Feliciano is "not physically capable of sustaining the labors and exposure in the performance of his duties as a firefighter" - and therefore disqualified him.
But Feliciano said, "Other friends of mine who got hired were ranked lower than I was on the test."
Maniatis, the amputee's lawyer, said, "By their own criteria, Isaac not only passes, he excels. Isaac's leg looks different, but clearly it allows him to perform as well if not better than most of the other candidates."
Maniatis said the NFPA guidelines are merely advisory, noting that there are amputee firefighters elsewhere. There's even a group called the Amputee Firefighter Association.
Feliciano has appealed the decision before the New Jersey Personnel Department medical board, and a hearing is set for Wednesday.
Republished with permission of The New York Post.