N.Y. firefighter still fighting against the odds

Copyright 2006 Newsday, Inc.

Firefighter recalls jump from burning building one year later
By Newsday (New York)

Firefighter Eugene Stolowski recalls diving out of the fourth-story window of a burning Bronx apartment building, but cannot remember plunging downward or the horrible snap of his spinal cord when he hit the frozen ground.

That fall happened exactly one year ago today, and nothing in his life has been the same since.

"When I went out that window, the next thing I expected to see were the Pearly Gates," Stolowski, 34, said during an interview from his upstate home. "But when I felt the snow on my face, I knew I must be alive. I didn't think there was any snow in heaven."

The fall dislocated the firefighter's spine from his skull, and doctors gave him a 5 percent chance of surviving. Even after they reattached his spine with metal rods, the doctors warned he had only a 50-50 chance of ever standing again.

Today, Stolowski is up and walking around his Florida, N.Y., home, able to play with his 9-month-old twin daughters who were born while he was hospitalized.

While his physical therapy continues daily, and he says he "has too much metal in me to ever be a firefighter again," Stolowski knows he is one of the lucky survivors of the fire.

He was one of six firefighters who jumped out of the burning building that cold January day. Two - Curtis Meyran, 46, and John Bellew, 37 - died of their injuries, while Stolowski and the three others were seriously hurt.

Jeffrey Cool, another survivor of the Bronx fire, turned 39 Wednesday and is slowly regaining use of his left shoulder and arm, which was broken in three places. The fall also fractured his skull in two places, broke 13 ribs and led doctors to temporarily remove his vital organs from his chest to reduce swelling. He received a 46-pint blood transfusion that day.

"I wasn't supposed to make it through the first night," Cool said. "Yet, I'm still here, and I'm still walking, just dealing with the pain."

Cool, who worked as an Air Force firefighter before joining the FDNY, has begun organizing a national legislative campaign to equip every firefighter in the country with a personal safety rope.

The two other firefighters injured in the Bronx fire, Brendan Cawley and Joseph DiBernardo, are undergoing physical therapy as well. Stolowski said he expects Cawley, who was only a firefighter for one month before the accident, to return to work one day.

Yet, even though they are considered the lucky ones, Cool says this has been the most painful year of his life.

"I call Eugene 'Superman,'" said Cool of his friend's recovery. "My wife calls me the 'miracle man.' Everyone is always telling me I look great. Well, they should ask me how I feel on the inside. I want to get a T-shirt that says, 'I feel like crap.'" 

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