Black Sunday 15 years later: Reflecting on the fires that changed FDNY
Remembering the three firefighters killed, many others injured, and recognizing the push for continued training and equipment
The audio captures the desperation in their voices: “Mayday, mayday, mayday,” then again, “mayday, mayday, mayday. Ladder 2-7 mayday,” “roof team, drop ropes over.”
You hear the multiple elevated voices of desperation and coordinated command chaos overtaking the scene before you finally hear, “A whole company just jumped in the rear,” followed by the eerie rapid count of the FDNY officer observing the carnage over the radio, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 have jumped in the rear; we need massive EMS here, massive injuries.”
Dispatched at 07:59 a.m. on Jan. 23, 2005, the fire at the relatively small five-story tenement apartment building on East 178th Street in the Bronx wasn’t a fiery grave for Firefighter John Bellew and Lt. Curtis Meyran, but it was their hell before leaping from the fourth-floor windows to their deaths.
Four other firefighters – Brendan Cawley, Jeff Cool, Joe DiBernardo Jr. and Gene Stolowski – were all severely injured in the jump. While Cawley continues to work today, the other three ultimately retired following the incident.
This Bronx fire was just the start of a cold, windy and dreadful day that would become known as “Black Sunday.” It was the deadliest day for the FDNY since the September 11, 2001, attacks at the World Trade Center, as the Bronx fire was not the only line-of-duty incident that day.
The basement steps of a two-family home on Jerome Street in Brooklyn would be the nemesis for Ladder 103 Firefighter Richard Sclafani. While his crew exited the basement as the heat grew too intense, reports indicate that Sclafani caught his gear on a coat rack while trying to exit. His body was later pulled from the steps, and he was transported to Brookdale Medical Center where he was pronounced dead.
As we remember this dark day 15 years later, we know the pain never goes away.
Related to the Bronx fire, although a New York Supreme Court jury awarded families of the fallen firefighters $183 million to be primarily paid by the city and the building owners, the City appealed the decision and arbitration was ultimately ordered. Settlements were personal and apparently pennies on the dollar of the jury award. The 1920s-era building, originally with three luxury apartments per floor, had individual apartments illegally subdivided into five rooms within the normal one-room occupancies. Certainly no amount of money will bring back the firefighters, assuage the grief for their families, nor heal the mental and physical wounds of those injured and disabled that day.
NIOSH investigation: 178th Street
The NIOSH report for 178th Street, released on Dec. 6, 2006, paints an all-too familiar picture of how the department could “minimize similar occurrences” in the future, notably:
- Review and follow existing standard operating procedures (SOPs)
- Ensure that mayday transmissions are prioritized
- Provide firefighters with the appropriate safety equipment
While developing and following SOPs are mentioned in four of the conclusions, probably the most troubling of conclusions was that the fire department needed to provide firefighters appropriate rescue equipment. You see, in 2000, the FDNY ceased the practice of issuing rescue ropes to firefighters because they were “too bulky.” And on Jan. 23, 2005, only two of the crew had ropes – one purchased on his own. Later in 2005, the FDNY once again began issuing rescue ropes to each firefighter.
I encourage everyone to read the full NIOSH report, as reading the chilling details might give you a small glimpse into the 178th Street fire. An excerpt:
“Injured fire fighter #3 became trapped in the first bedroom. He closed the bedroom door behind a wall of fire coming down the hallway. The conditions within the room were extremely high heat with zero visibility. As the transit window over the door vented, the heat within the room became intolerable. Injured fire fighter #3 sought refuge from the heat by hanging his torso out the bedroom window. With his head outside the window, he saw injured fire fighter #4 in the window of the adjacent bedroom. Injured fire fighter #3 remained calm and radioed a Mayday, followed a few seconds later with, “We’re bailing out of here, hurry up.” Injured fire fighter #4 handed fire fighter #3 the end of his personal safety rope (Note: This was accomplished from the exterior of the structure with both fire fighters hanging out of the windows. The personal safety rope, purchased independently by injured fire fighter #4, was NFPA approved and 50 ft long). Fire fighter #3 wrapped the end of the rope around his wrist several times, held the rope in his hands and stepped on the rope. Fire fighter #4 wrapped the rope under his arms, held the rope together and attempted to belay to the ground. When fire fighter #3 felt the rope go slack, he attached the carabineer end to the child window guard; he wrapped the rope around his shoulder and arm and slowly descended from the window. Fire fighter #3 reported that the rope had broken and he recalled hitting the ground feet first, looking up and seeing fire coming out of the 4th floor windows. Both fire fighters had fallen to the ground and suffered severe injuries. (Note: Although Fire Fighter #3 reported that the rope had broken, the rope was still attached to the window guard, unbroken, and hanging to the ground after the incident). Both injured fire fighters were wearing a safety harness but in their haste to escape the intense heat neither was able to attach the rope to the harness.”
There were 72 firefighters on scene before the fatal leaps occurred. It is difficult for some to whom I have spoken to understand how so many firefighters could be on scene of a relatively small building, with that many firefighters in a position to jump. It’s easy for people to “Monday-morning quarterback”; however, a read of the NIOSH report provides a glimpse to the building owner’s culpability to the non-permitted subdivisions without sprinkler installations AND the lack of fire department hoselines. The combination of the unpermitted maze and firefighters without hoselines produced a death trap.
NIOSH investigation: Jerome Street
Released five months prior to the 178th Street report, the Jerome Street NIOSH report sings many of the same songs we see over and over in NIOSH reports, also not inclusive recommendations, but notably:
- 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
The Jerome Street fire was dispatched approximately 5½ hours after the 178th Street fire. Firefighter Sclafani arrived on first-due Ladder 103. The wood-frame “two-family home” had apartments segregated on the first and second floors, as well as the basement. Ladder 103 descended the interior stairs and was preparing to search the fire area in the basement.
As conditions deteriorated, the officer ordered his crew to exit. Sclafani became tangled, becoming separated from the rest of his crew. Within one minute, the officer had reentered to find his missing crewmember. The officer got to the top of the steps, where he could hear the audible PASS device from the downed firefighter. The next passage from the NIOSH report is also eerily familiar to many of us: “He immediately transmitted a mayday for the missing fire fighter. Note: The Battalion 44 Chief Officer did not hear this transmission.”
One minute later, the officer followed up with a second mayday transmission, at which point he discovered Sclafani. It would take numerous firefighters nearly 20 minutes to remove Sclafani from the basement to awaiting medical units. Nine other firefighters were injured during the firefight and rescue attempt.
FDNY members cope with loss following Black Sunday
As most would expect, the NIOSH reports left stinging sensations throughout the fire service. Once again, we’re being told to better outfit and prepare our firefighters, to follow SOPs and to better coordinate command functions. The FDNY ultimately spent millions to implement the NIOSH recommendations, most notably outfitting every firefighter (again) with a personal escape system and providing the countless hours of training its 11,000+ firefighters.
While the FDNY is no stranger to loss, coping with the death is as important as learning from the incident. The department leaned heavily on the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and the International Association of Fire Fighters as well as its own resources developed after the horrific events of September 11, 2001.
Black Sunday pales in comparison to 9/11 in sheer numbers; however, multiple deaths, at different fires, a couple of hours apart, would be difficult for any department to handle, even the FDNY. Fortunately, the size and scope of services available internally at FDNY provided a backbone from which to work.
I spoke with FDNY Lt. (ret.) Joe Minogue for some perspective on coping with the firefighters’ deaths. At the time, Minogue was a house boss, assigned to Sclafani’s house – Engine 290. Minogue was also a bugler who participated with the FDNY ceremonial unit.
Minogue had heard about the 178th Street fire, so when he received his first phone call about service needs, he was thrown by the question, “Which funeral are you going to do?” At that moment, he was unaware of the tragedy that had occurred at his own company. Minogue coordinated Sclafani’s funeral services and was the bugler at the funeral.
Minogue spoke to the pain and sorrow every firefighter felt, but also the overwhelming need to get back to work.
Minogue now volunteers with the NFFF, serving as a liaison to the FDNY and as a lead advocate.
The FDNY ceremonial unit’s depth of organization provides significant assistance for special events, including memorial/funeral services. The unit’s sense of pride and honor was – and remains – an integral part of the coping mechanisms available to the FDNY members.
Sharing stories and advocating for change
Firefighter Jeff Cool was one of the “lucky” ones from that day. In his fall at the 178th Street fire, he broke 13 ribs, his pelvis (in four places), cracked bones in his spine and neck, and fractured his skull in two places – but he lived.
After recovery, Cool began speaking around the country and worked with the IAFF Fire Ground Survival program to produce a video that helps train other firefighters – and allows them to learn from this horrid day.
Cool had a rope, but nowhere to tie off. He sat at the window, DiBernardo in the room behind him, offering the rope to each other, before DiBernardo said to Cool, “You have a wife and kids, you take the rope.”
Cool would make it out the window as DiBernardo wrapped the rope around his arm and waist then stood on the end. Cool still fell, just not as far as the others. DiBernardo then tied off to a child gate but also fell. DiBernardo also survived, but broke just about every bone below his waist. Stolowski’s injuries resulted in a near decapitation – an EMT held traction on him, likely saving his life. In the recovery, Stolowski’s head was fused to his spine – a 1-in-100 survival chance. Cawley also survived, and after recovery, he and the other three embarked on a national speaking tour to preach the need for personal safety systems.
I had the humbling experience to speak with Joey’s father, Joe DiBernardo Sr. (“Chief D”), retired Division Commander, 6th Division South Bronx Harlem. Chief D retired from the FDNY in 2001 but remains active today in firefighter safety and survival circles.
In 2012, Chief D established The Joey D. Foundation in memory of his son and the other fallen members, as well as those who were injured on Jan. 23, 2005.
Chief D’s first-hand and personal passion for ensuring firefighters are outfitted with the necessary safety equipment is unparalleled: “You don’t send a police officer to a gun fight with a knife, do ya?” he asked. “You don’t send them in without a bullet-proof vest, do ya? Then why would we send firefighters in without the equipment they need? I don’t know!”
The work is never done
In 2005, the FDNY finished its internal investigation into the Black Sunday fires. The harsh internal critique was – and really still is – considered a breath of fresh air in its apparent transparency to its own failures.
The report was no solace for the families of the fallen and injured. Personal escape systems have been purchased for every firefighter – systems that most likely would have saved every one of the lives lost and prevented the injuries and early retirements of at least four others.
The Joey D. Foundation has given away $471,000 worth of personal safety systems and training. It has helped 39 departments across the country. It has worked with the Suffolk County, New York, fire academy to purchase a flashover simulator. The personal mission to provide the training and outfit every firefighter with personal safety systems is a crusade up against seemingly goliath odds.
Chief D laments that many, especially smaller communities, weigh the cost of rope and safety systems they may never need versus fire trucks they need every day, and inevitably spend the money elsewhere.
Between the FDNY training and nonprofits like the Joey D. Foundation, significant training has gone into not only the escape systems but also implementing the recommendations of both Black Sunday NIOSH reports.
But the work is never done. Once you’ve had this kind of trauma, the scars never go away and the recovery never ends.
Chief D left me with this very simple realization: “You may never need that rescue rope. But the one time you do need it will be one less firefighter funeral you have to go to.”