FDNY firefighter testifies in Black Sunday trial

By Denise Buffa and Cynthia R. Fagen
The New York Post

AP Photo/Gregory Bull
Firefighters mourn outside the building where the two firefighters were killed.
NEW YORK — A firefighter yesterday described in harrowing detail the frantic scene inside a Bronx inferno as he and five comrades became trapped by smoke and flames — forcing them to jump 40 feet to the pavement. The leap killed two of them.

"I saw flames from the floor to the ceiling. Brother talked over brother and it got chaotic," Jeffrey Cool, 41, told a Bronx Supreme Court jury, describing the deadly events of Jan. 23, 2005, which came to be called "Black Sunday."

"It was just real crazy. It was starting to get like hell in there," he said.

Equipped with thermal imaging, Cool could see how flames had cut them off from the front door and the fire escape.

"I said, 'I gotta go get these guys because they don't know the fire's behind them,' " Cool testified. And then he told one firefighter, "Hey brother, we got to go. We got to back up out of here. We got fire behind us."

"It was blackout conditions," he told a rapt jury.

Cool said he could barely see, but knew he was near the others because he could hear them breathing through their masks.

He said that in the ensuing chaotic seconds his tools, an ax and possibly his helmet, were knocked off when he banged into another blinded firefighter.

"There was Mayday after Mayday after Mayday going off. It started to get into a panic state," he said.

That's when he got on top of an air-conditioning unit outside. "Now I'm fleeing. It's time to go," he told jurors.

"I could feel fire coming up my leg. Fire is coming up my back, my neck. I'm thinking about my wife, my kids. I'm thinking somebody has got to get us."

He said he looked to his left and saw fellow firefighter Joe DiBernardo on another window ledge.

"I look at Joey. We're in a bad spot here," he said. "Joey's radioing maydays."

Cool told DiBernardo he had a fire-resistant safety rope he had purchased for himself. He told DiBernardo to use it but the firefighter refused. "I said, 'No, you go, and then I'll go.' He said, 'No, you got a wife and kids you go first.' "

Cool said he wrapped the rope around his waist, and DiBernardo, with nowhere to anchor it, tied it around his arm.

"Guys are going one after another out that window," Cool said. "The brothers, they were gone, one after another.

"The whole room was getting ready to flash over," Cool said, noting he had no choice but to go out the window. "That was it, I rolled out the window."

Cool shimmied about 10 feet before he lost his grip.

"I remember hitting the ground some 40 feet below. I was in a world of hurt. I was in the worst pain," he said.

DiBernardo managed to be lowered about 10 feet as well before the rope broke.

During the gripping testimony, the widow of fire Lt. Curtis Meyran sobbed softly as she held the hand of Cool's wife.

On trial for manslaughter for allegedly contributing to the deaths of Meyran, 46, and Firefighter John Bellew, 37, is the building landlord and two tenants.

They are accused of illegally adding a wall that blocked firefighters from getting to the fire escape.

Under cross-examination, Francisco Knipping, a lawyer for tenant Caridad Coste, asked Cool how long it took firefighters to put out the blaze.

Cool testily shot back, "That's a good question. Because I was laying on my back in the alley."

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