Black Sunday: A dark day in FDNY history
Jan. 23, 2005, marked the first time since 1918 that FDNY members had died in separate calls on the same day
On Sunday, Jan. 23, 2005, the FDNY suffered one of the darkest days in the department’s history, as multiple members were killed in the line of duty at separate incidents.
The day is now known as Black Sunday.
At the time, it was the deadliest day for the FDNY since the 2001 terrorist attacks, and the first time since 1918 that members had died in separate calls on the same day.
In the years since, changes have been made to department protocol and policies to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future.
BRONX FIRE: 178th Street
The first call came in just before 8 a.m. for a third-floor apartment fire at 236 E 178th St., and three alarms were called, activating crews from Engine Company 42, Ladder Company 33, Ladder Company 27 and Rescue Company 3.
A blizzard had recently dropped more than 15 inches of snow, making it difficult for vehicles to reach the address. In addition, the closest hydrant to the apartment was frozen, and the cold had also affected some of the hoses.
As crews began making their way through the building, many became disoriented due to drywall partitions that had been erected to subdivide the apartments. A group of six firefighters on the fourth floor found themselves trapped after fire flashed through an apartment door.
Only two of the firefighters had personal safety ropes, as the FDNY had stopped issuing them in 2000, due to the ropes being too bulky and infrequently used. Unable to reach the fire escape from a window, all six men jumped from the building as the heat and intensity of the fire increased.
Fire Lts. John Bellew and Curtis Meyran died on impact, while the others – Firefighters Brendan Cawley, Jeff Cool, Gene Stolowski and Lt. Joe DiBernardo Jr. – were severely injured.
DiBernardo, who was promoted to lieutenant in 2005, died six years later on Nov. 22, 2011.
Listen as Cool recounts the incident in a 2011 interview:
BROOKLYN FIRE: Jerome Street
Later in the day on Jan. 23, a call came for a two-story home where people celebrating a birthday party had initially smelled smoke. Like the building on 178th Street, the home was divided into “apartments” on both floors and in the basement. Members from Ladder Company 103 were investigating the blaze when the heat of the fire forced them to retreat.
One crewmember, Firefighter Richard Sclafani, did not emerge from the home, and was later found unconscious on the basement stairs after his equipment caught on a coatrack while he attempted to evacuate. He was pronounced dead after being transported to a nearby medical center.
How the FDNY changed after Black Sunday
In September 2005, the FDNY issued its official investigative report for the 178th Street fire. In it, the department found that personal ropes would have assisted the men during the incident. The FDNY began re-issuing ropes to personnel in October 2005.
In the NIOSH report for 178th Street, some of the recommendations included:
- Review and follow existing standard operating procedures (SOPs)
- Ensure that mayday transmissions are prioritized
- Provide firefighters with the appropriate safety equipment, such as escape ropes, and associated training in jurisdictions where high-rise fires are likely
- Develop SOPs for firefighting operations during high wind conditions
- Ensure that team continuity is maintained during interior operations
- Ensure that firefighters conducting interior operations provide the incident commander with progress reports
In the NIOSH report for the Jerome Street incident, some of the recommendations included:
- Ensure that the first-arriving officer or incident commander (IC) conducts a complete size-up of the incident scene
- Ensure that firefighters conducting interior operations provide progress reports to the IC
- Ensure that mayday procedures are followed and refresher training is provided annually or as needed
- Ensure that a rapid intervention team (RIT) is on the scene and in position to provide immediate assistance prior to crews entering a hazardous environment
Listen to radio transmissions from the day:
Legal repercussions from Black Sunday
In 2016, a jury awarded $183 million to the families of those killed and injured in the 178th Street apartment fire. The decision split the blame – 80% for the city and 20% for the building’s landlord. However, the City of New York, despite sympathizing with the victims and their families, did not agree with the verdict.
“The City has always viewed this incident as a tragedy for the firefighters and their families, but we believe that the jury’s verdict does not fairly apportion liability in view of compelling evidence that established that the landlord’s numerous building code violations were directly responsible for this horrible event,” read a statement. “We will review the record and evaluate our legal options.”
After the city appealed the initial ruling, arbitration was ordered, and final settlements were kept private.
Black Sunday: Reflecting on the fires that changed FDNY
Remembering the three firefighters killed, many others injured, and recognizing the push for continued training and equipment