It's the FDNY's "dirty little secret." At least a dozen of New York's Bravest - some of them assigned to look after Sept. 11 widows - have left their wives for the spouses of their comrades killed in the terror attacks, sources told The Post.
"It's disgusting, heartbreaking what they've done," said Mary Koenig, whose husband, Gerry Koenig of Staten Island's Rescue 5 squad, ditched her and their two kids for Madeline Bergin, the widow of his friend and firehouse mate, John Bergin, after the World Trade Center attacks.
An insider who has worked with firefighter families and a counselor who worked for one of the FDNY services told The Post there are about a dozen cases similar to the Koenigs.
FDNY spokesman David Billig would not comment on the figure. Another FDNY official told The Post, "It's a very sensitive topic."
Koenig had been the Bergin family's "liaison" - a surrogate-parent role traditionally taken on by Bravest when a fellow firefighter is killed.
Although "liaisons" are not officially designated, the role is part of an honored, unwritten pact going back more than 100 years.
"Not only have these men dishonored their own families, they've dishonored the memories of men who are heroes, who were their brothers," Mary Koenig said. "It's the department's dirty little secret."
When, after 9/11, the FDNY called in experts who'd dealt with the psychological fallout from the Oklahoma City bombings, they were told that some firefighters may start relationships with the widows.
"The department saw this happening - knew from mental-health experts that it could happen - and did nothing to intervene," Mary Koenig said.
Billig defended the department, noting that it has "done a tremendous amount" in terms of dealing with attack-related psychological issues, including family and marital problems, since Sept. 11, 2001.
"We have been very proactive in developing solutions and encouraging our employees and their families to seek help," Billig said. "The topic of surviving firefighters not neglecting their own families after Sept. 11" was addressed shortly after the attacks. Among the FDNY initiatives was hiring 300 counselors, and developing programs "that matched every domestic situation we could think of," he added.
Still, Kristin Zazulka, 18, said the system devastated her family. The teen complained to department officials after her dad, John Zazulka of Brooklyn's Squad 1, dumped her mom, Susan, and Kristin's three younger siblings for widow Debbie Amato, the wife of fallen squadmate, James Amato, and Amato's four kids.
Zazulka, who did not return calls to The Post, has also become a deadbeat dad: He has twice been found in contempt of court by a Staten Island family court judge for failure to support his kids.
In September 2002, the McKinsey report - the outside evaluation of the city's response to the WTC attacks - noted that the FDNY must improve and expand the support services offered to its members and families because it was not adequately equipped to deal with the ongoing ramifications of large-scale events.
Koenig said that when her husband began to disassociate himself from his family, she made repeated entreaties to his captain to intervene. After speaking with both Madeline Bergin and Gerry Koenig, the captain ordered Gerry back to his own family.
But the order didn't stick.
Gerry Koenig declined to comment to The Post, saying only, "My life is private - it's not anybody else's business. I didn't leave my family. I left my wife."
For the last several months, Mary Koenig has been on a one-woman campaign to get the FDNY to change its protocol regarding counseling after a catastrophic tragedy.
She's written to FDNY brass and state and local lawmakers, calling for what she calls "The John Bergin Act." It would require FDNY brass to supervise the liaison program and to make counseling mandatory after large-scale events.