As Firehouse Sees It: Another Tragedy

Dec. 13, 2011

We didn’t start the fire, but the incident still takes lives years later. On Sept. 11, 2001, the collapse of the World Trade Center killed 343 FDNY firefighters. Six years later, the Deutsche Bank building, one of several damaged in the collapse, was being demolished when fire broke out. Firefighters responded to a working fire on the uppermost floors. Mold had overtaken the building. During the firefighting operation on Aug. 18, 2007, no water was reaching the upper floors because a supply pipe to the standpipe had been cut. In the thick, black smoke and maze-like conditions with stairways blocked and plastic and canvas hanging to keep toxic dust inside the building, nearly 30 Maydays were transmitted by firefighters. Two firefighters died while advancing a hoseline to the seat of the fire. While the fire claimed these two lives, the real reason they died was because of a bureaucratic mess. The building should have been taken down years earlier, but delay after delay led to these additional tragic losses. 9/11 is still taking lives.

Black Sunday, Bronx, NY, Jan. 23, 2005. An illegally converted apartment, with walls separating the fire escape from the apartment and a blizzard blowing outside. FDNY Rescue 3 responded and began searching the top floor for life and fire extension. High winds blew the fire from one end of the apartment to the other. The fire escape and stairway were unreachable. Conditions changed in seconds. Extreme heat forced six firefighters to windows. It was a life-and-death decision: Jump five floors to the ground or burn to death.

This was like no other incident. Lieutenant Curtis Meyran and Firefighters Eugene Stolowski and Brendan Cawley of Ladder 27 were at one window, Ladder 27 chauffeur John Bellew was at another. Firefighters Jeffrey Cool and Joseph DiBernardo of Rescue 3 were at adjacent windows. Cool carried a rope in his pocket. Cool was married with two children. DiBernardo was single. Cool tossed the rope to DiBernardo as he had a place to anchor the rope. As Cool’s leg started to burn, he went out the window. Unable to hold the rope, he fell to the ground five floors below. The rear of the building had an alley one floor below street level. DiBernardo went out the window and also fell. A fire officer in the rear counted “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6” as they all jumped and requested a massive EMS response.

Bellew and Meyran died of their injuries. Cool needed 40 pints of blood. Stolowski suffered a spinal injury. After an operation described as “one in a million,” Stolowski not only survived, but walks, talks and even drives after extensive therapy. Cawley, whose brother was killed on 9/11, returned to full duty in Ladder 27. DiBernardo was in a coma for two weeks. He was given last rites twice. After numerous operations, he had 10 titanium plates and many screws inserted in his shattered lower body. All endured extensive hospital stays and even more intense long-term therapy. Cool and DiBernardo had to retire with medical disabilities.

Most firefighters who are injured get great support from family, firefighters and friends. What most don’t know about is the emotional toll that serious injuries can take. Days, weeks, months and even years go by. Physical injuries may be overcome, but emotional scars may never heal.

DiBernardo was a hero for putting his fellow firefighter’s life ahead of his own. He was in constant pain from his shattered bones. Joey, who retired with the rank of lieutenant, passed away on Nov. 23, 2011.

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