FDNY chief who oversaw fire boat involved in fatal crash forced to retire, suit contends
A lawsuit filed by high-ranking chiefs says Richard Blatus' retirement highlights tactics used to get older chiefs to retire
By Thomas Tracy
New York Daily News
NEW YORK — A New York City Fire Department chief who oversaw a fireboat involved in a fatal East River crash last year has been forced to turn in his retirement papers, court papers reveal.
Chief Richard Blatus was FDNY’s acting chief of operations at the time of the June 17, 2022, incident that took the life of Johnny Beernaert, a Belgian firefighter aboard the fireboat Marine 1 Bravo on a tour in the East River.
A month after the crash, Blatus was moved to another position. He eventually put in papers for his retirement, which sources said took formal effect Thursday.
A lawsuit filed by a group of FDNY chiefs and Daily News sources say Blatus, 63, was browbeaten into retirement by the Fire Department.
Blatus, 63, is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit by high-ranking chiefs who claim they were harassed, maligned and ultimately demoted because they were too old in Kavanagh’s eyes. But his retirement highlights tactics used to get older FDNY chiefs to retire, say sources and legal papers.
The lawsuit, filed March 23, also alleges that the nighttime fireboat joyride that took Beernaert’s life was initiated by a retired FDNY captain who “activated FDNY’s Marine 1 Bravo and took civilians on a ride without authorization.” The captain had retired from the department before the crash, sources said.
A source with knowledge of the case confirmed that the retired captain cajoled an active FDNY member to pilot the boat, but never asked anyone of a higher rank for permission to take the vessel out.
Beernaert, his wife, the retired FDNY captain and the captain’s wife were on a nighttime ride on the East River aboard Marine 1 Bravo when the fireboat collided with a charter boat, the Honcho, near Pier 11.
Beernaert suffered a head injury in the crash and died at Bellevue Hospital. His wife, Heidi Vermandel, was not injured.
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The retired FDNY captain and his wife, who were also on the boat, weren’t harmed.
An FDNY source with knowledge of the case claims the FDNY boat pilot wasn’t to blame, as the bow of the charter boat hit the stern of the fireboat on the port side.
The department confirmed that an on-duty firefighter was piloting the boat and had passed all drug and alcohol tests.
After the crash, the FDNY dry-docked four Marine 1 Bravo fire officers — the firefighter who piloted the vessel, a lieutenant, a captain and a battalion chief — by pulling them from regular duties and giving them administrative jobs.
The firefighter, lieutenant and battalion chief were still anchored to their desks Friday, FDNY officials said. The captain had been moved to another unit.
No one has been disciplined as the FDNY awaits the results of an investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard has not responded to The News’ queries about the status of the probe.
A source with knowledge of the case said the department also wants to handle any lawsuits that come from the crash before meting out any punishment.
Before the crash, Blatus had questioned a few decisions by Kavanagh, who was acting fire commissioner from February 2022 until Mayor Eric Adams officially made her the first woman fire commissioner in the FDNY’s history in October.
In the two days after the crash — a Saturday and a Sunday — Blatus never received any calls from Kavanagh about investigative steps. That following Monday, June 20, he learned that Kavanagh had made inquiries and decisions on how to handle the crash without his input.
“A senior chief who participated in (Kavanagh’s) calls later told Chief Blatus that (she) “did not want (him) on the call,” the lawsuit reads. “Less than a month after Kavanagh’s clear mismanagement of the fatal boat crash, she summarily and unilaterally removed Chief Blatus from his position as Acting Chief of Operations.”
The FDNY’s chief of operations oversees the day-to-day work of 11,000 firefighters and fire officers, as well as dozens of chiefs, department officials said.
While Blatus was in charge of the Marine Unit and several other FDNY units at the time of the crash, he was “several people above” the chiefs who would have had hands-on knowledge about the investigation, a department source said. The FDNY’s Special Operations Command has direct control over the Marine Unit, which at the time was run by Chief John Esposito.
Kavanagh named Esposito as Blatus’ replacement a month after the crash.
That July, Blatus underwent surgery for a line-of-duty injury. He was on medical leave for five months when, for no legitimate reason, “the doctor informed (him) that his medical leave had been terminated” and he was being put back to work.
“Kavanagh ordered the removal from medical leave, trying to force Chief Blatus to retire so she could replace him with a younger chief,” the lawsuit reads. He was one of three chiefs who were summarily pulled from medical leave without an official or medical reason, the suit notes.
Blatus was also told to surrender his department-issued vehicle, another step in the department’s ongoing encouragement to get him to retire, the lawsuit states.
When Blatus finally decided to put in his papers, he was told that he wouldn’t be allowed to “bank” more than 1,000 hours of unused vacation time — the equivalent to 125 eight-hour days — and get the time as cash, which historically other chiefs have been allowed to do.
It was another intimidation tactic used to get him to leave, according to the lawsuit filed by chiefs Michael Gala, Joe Jardin and Michael Massucci.
Gala, Jardin and Assistant Chief Fred Schaaf were all demoted to deputy chief by Kavanagh in February. Their demotions sparked a mass protest by FDNY chiefs who criticized Kavanagh and asked to be demoted in rank and moved out of department headquarters.
Massucci also asked to be demoted and joined the suit after Kavanagh removed him as chief of personnel after he questioned some of her transfer decisions.
Massucci was ultimately transferred to the department’s tech services tool room in “an attempt to humiliate and disgrace me amongst my superiors, subordinates, coworkers and friends,” according to his request to be put back in the field.
Kavanagh hasn’t signed off on any of the demotion requests and asked the chiefs to hang on for three more months while she “rights the ship,” FDNY officials said.
The chiefs’ lawsuit, filed March 23, has been labeled by the FDNY as “baseless” and “just an attempt to undermine the authority of the Fire Commissioner.”
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In the meantime, Edward Mattiace, the captain of the Honcho, filed paperwork asking a Brooklyn federal judge to clear him of any liability in Beernaert’s death.
According to court papers, Mattiace claims the FDNY boat’s pilot failed to follow safety rules by speeding, not having enough crew members or a proper look-out, and not having proper lighting or navigation equipment.