Grieving Father Seeks Recognition for FDNY Son

NEW YORK -- In his first interview since his 40-year old son was found dead in his Long Island bedroom--retired, FDNY deputy chief Joseph DiBernardo told PIX 11 he wants his son's name included on the FDNY's "Wall of Heroes"--which honors those who died in the line of duty.

Joey DiBernardo died last November, nearly seven years after he was forced to jump from the top floor of a burning building in the Bronx. PIX 11 learned Monday the official cause of death was accidental overdose of painkillers and anti-depressants. "The reason he was on medications was pain. The pain was caused by Black Sunday. If there was no Black Sunday, my son would be here today."

Before he jumped, because illegal partitions blocked the fire escapes, Joseph P. DiBernardo had held a safety rope--so he could assist his colleague, Jeff Cool, who was trying to get out of the next window. Cool, a father of two sons, has long credited DiBernardo with saving his life. Two of the six firefighters who jumped died on January 23, 2005. "They died that day," DiBernardo's father told PIX 11 Monday. "And my son lived in pain for six, more years."

The retired, deputy chief told PIX he submitted a package of documents to a union official, who was having a recent meeting with FDNY brass. Some of the letters quoted a pain management doctor and psychiatric nurse who treated DiBernardo for panic attacks and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, after Black Sunday. DiBernardo's father quoted Dr. Philliipe Vaillncourt: "Continuing pain contributed directly to his death." The final autopsy report, signed in February 2012, lists the cause of death as "Hydromorphone and Citralapram Intoxication"--another way of saying an overdose of painkillers and antidepressants. The manner of death: Accident. DiBernardo's father said his son wouldn't want to deliberately take his own life. "Oh, no. He would have left me a note, and he'd never leave his best friend, his dog." DiBernardo's beloved dog, Rescue, was found resting on top of DiBernardo's body in the retired fire lieutenant's bedroom, at his Miller Place home in Suffolk County.

A union source told PIX 11 the department was reluctant to grant the DiBernardo family a "line of duty" death designation, but an FDNY spokesman issued a statement Monday evening indicating the family could submit a request:

"There must be an application to the Board of Trustees of the Fire Department Pension Fund (represented by both city and union representatives) in order for anyone to be approved for a line of duty death designation. No such application has been made in the case of retired Lieut. DiBernardo. If such an application is formally made, it will be reviewed by the Board of Trustees for consideration."

DiBernardo's father pointed out to PIX 11 that a review for CVS pharmacy records in 2004 showed there were absolutely no prescriptions filled for his son, Joseph P. DiBernardo, that year. "He never took any medications in his life," his father pointed out. But after January 2005, there were numerous prescriptions. DiBernardo was taking ten medications at the time of his death on November 22, 2011.

The father recalled that he and his son spent months digging through the pile of debris at Ground Zero, after the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001. Joey D, as he was called, had lost more than a half dozen colleagues from his Rescue 3 squad in the Bronx. The psychiatric nurse told family members Joey's D's trauma was compounded after Black Sunday in 2005. But in the months before his death, he was making a turnaround, his family told PIX. He had enrolled in Suffolk County Community College the week before his death, hoping to study to be a counselor. He had spent the summer enjoying a new boat on the water. And he loved his role as godfather to his sister's baby daughter.

Now, DiBernardo's father has trouble sleeping, as he continues to mourn his only son's premature death. "All I can see is my son in a box, six feet in the ground," the retired chief said tearfully. "40 years old, he should be here with us, he shouldn't be dead. And he's dead because of that fire."

And the fire chief vowed to press on with his drive to see his son's name honored. He talked of writing to Mayor Bloomberg, who had called him after Joey's death. "The mayor can do this. He can do this. I think he's an honorable man."

He spoke of being on a mission to close the final chapter of the Black Sunday story for his son. "All those heroes on that wall. He knows he belongs there. And he won't rest in peace until his name is there. And neither will I."

Copyright 2012 - WPIX-TV, New York

McClatchy-Tribune News Service