Families of Six Firefighter Victims of 'Black Sunday' Blaze Settle for $29.5M

Chief Leader - September 28, 2016

by SARAH DORSEY

In the end, six FDNY families whose loved ones were killed or suffered life-altering injuries when they were forced to jump from a burning building in the 2005 Black Sunday fire just wanted it to be over.

Despite a Bronx jury awarding them $183 million in February, they settled with the city last week for $29.5 million, forgoing the potential extra money to avoid an appeal.

Stopped Issuing Ropes

The families had sued because the Fire Department in 2000 stopped issuing safety ropes to its members, arguing that they were heavy and were used infrequently. On Jan. 23, 2005, five firefighters became trapped in an illegally subdivided Bronx apartment about five stories above the ground during a raging fire.

Two jumped to their deaths: Lieut. Curtis Meyron and Firefighter John Bellew. Four survived with catastrophic injuries, including Firefighters Eugene Stolowski, Brendon Cawley and then-Firefighter Jeff Cool. Firefighter Joseph DiBernardo Jr. died six years later of an accidental overdose of medication for his enduring injuries.

“I just wanted it to be over,” said retired Fire Deputy Chief Joseph DiBernardo Sr. last week. “It’s not about the money; it’s about the city admitting they were wrong.”

Mr. DiBernardo fought for months to have his son’s name added to an FDNY monument known as the “Wall of Heroes” honoring those who died in the line of duty, a wish then-Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano granted in 2012. The following year, he and his family founded the Lieutenant Jo­seph P. DiBernardo Memorial Foundation, which provides safety ropes and training to firefighters around the country.

Feared Prolonged Appeal

The elder DiBernardo said each family was given the chance to decide for themselves whether they would accept the settlement. It will be split many ways, distributed among widows, children and parents of the deceased as well as to the two survivors.

“They made an offer of like 10 cents on the dollar and we said no, that’s ridiculous. They said we’ll hang it up on appeal; it’ll be another couple of years,” Chief DiBernardo said.

“I might be dead by the time this thing’s over,” he realized. “And I can do good with the money, with my foundation.”

He first plans to donate a van to the FDNY Fire Family Transport Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that helps firefighters and their families get to medical appointments and family support events, including those suffering from 9/11-related illness. He also wants to donate a scholarship in his son’s name at a local school and better fund his own foundation.

A Bad Calculus

Mr. DiBernardo was a division commander in the South Bronx when the FDNY took away the ropes, and he recalls meetings in which Chiefs and safety personnel were united in their opposition to the decision.

“Someone in a meeting said, ‘They’ve only been used seven times in X years,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘That’s seven less funerals you had to go to.’”

His biggest regret is that his son, who suffered daily from chronic pain, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after the fire, didn’t live to see a jury declare the city liable.

“My son didn’t get to see a dime of this. He said, ‘Dad, you know when that money comes in I’m gonna buy a nice house on the water and relax,” the Chief recalled. “Now he’s looking down from heaven and he’s going, ‘We stuck it to the city. We didn’t stick it to ’em as good as we’d like to, but it’s over.’”