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Fla. firefighter disciplined for Charleston shirt tribute

By Thomas Lake
St. Petersburg Times
Copyright 2007 Sentinel Communications Co.

PASCO COUNTY, Fla. — He drove all night, and by dawn he had reached the old city where nine fellow firefighters died in a tower of flame.

Outside the warehouse in Charleston, S.C., as the smell of smoke lingered, mourners were building a shrine to the dead.

Capt. David Garofalo works for Pasco County Fire Rescue, and he had come to pay tribute. He took a department-issued polo shirt from his duffel bag and scrawled a message in black: “God bless you.”

He walked away, leaving his shirt by the fresh-cut flowers.

Garofalo hoped superiors would appreciate the gesture. Instead, he got a reprimand.

“Equipment is not theirs to give away,” acting Assistant Chief Mike Ciccarello told the St. Petersburg Times on Friday. “They need to know that.”

The polo shirt is gray, with Garofalo’s name embroidered in gold. Its retail value is $23.95. The agency bought him five to wear at work. Suddenly he had just four.

Garofalo is 30 and after nearly 10 years with the department he had only one prior disciplinary action in his personnel file: counseling, for denting the bumper of a firetruck. He did not initiate contact with the newspaper for this story. He said he loves the department and doesn’t want to make it look bad.

He gave away the shirt June 22, four days after America’s worst loss of firefighters since Sept. 11, 2001. He says he meant to replace it with his own cash. But he didn’t do it right away. A week passed. Word got around. A few days later, his boss told him he was under investigation.

The problem, Ciccarello said, is that Garofalo didn’t immediately tell an administrator what he had done.

“The department would have been more than happy to work with him if he had called us,” Ciccarello said.

In his colleague’s defense, Capt. Kenneth Urbuteit, a union steward, said the administration made something out of nothing.

“It wasn’t like he went up there and left a fire engine,” he said.

But to Ciccarello, that’s irrelevant. “It could have been a dollar. It doesn’t matter. It’s not his to give away.”

The shirt’s cost is less than one-tenth that of the $246.71 in gasoline the agency’s honor guard billed the county for its trip to the memorial service.

Garofalo and those who went with him who are not part of the honor guard paid for their own gas.

On Tuesday, Ciccarello gave Garofalo a “Written Verbal Caution.” The document will stay on file for a year and then be destroyed. Garofalo was afraid the outcome would be worse. Because he was accused of a Class 3 offense, he thought he might be fired.

And so, despite his embarrassment, he e-mailed the fire chief in Charleston, asking for the shirt back.

Memorabilia was stored in a station in Charleston, according to Pam Blevins, the chief’s secretary. A firefighter had to sift through it, find Garofalo’s shirt and send it to headquarters. From there, Blevins put it in an envelope and mailed it to Garofalo. It arrived Friday.

In the meantime, Garofalo called the shirt vendor, DesignLab, whose headquarters happens to be in South Carolina, to place an order.

But when he explained the situation, the company sent him two free shirts.

Now he has seven gray polo shirts. He will soon have six.

He said he plans to mail the original shirt back to Charleston, along with a check: some for the dead firefighters’ families, and some to cover postage for the needless shipment.

One of his five department-issued shirts still has the tag on it. He gets by on a rotation of three.