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No Way Out

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Then came the transmissions:

8:30:43: “Mayday! Mayday 56! Man down, fell out the window!”

8:30:48: “Mayday! Mayday!”

8:30:49: “Fireman down in the rear! Two firemen down in the rear!”

8:30:51: “Two firemen down in the rear—let’s go!”

8:30:54: “Seventy-five, put your pumps…”

8:30:58: “Mayday! Mayday! Two firemen jumped from the top floor in the rear. We need a…”

8:31:09: “Brother in the…”

“Oh, man!”

8:31:15: “Start a mixer off—we got a whole company in the rear, they had to jump.”

8:31:23: “No way, no…”

“We got six guys…”

8:31:35: “Roof, let the rope down!”

8:31:40: “Mayday! Mayday in the rear! We need EMS in the rear.”

8:32:20: “One, two, three, four, five, six who jumped in the rear! We need massive EMS here! Massive injuries!”

On the morning of January 23, 2005, six firefighters jumped out of four fourth-story windows of a tenement at 236 East 178th Street in the Bronx, falling 50 feet to the pavement. Two of them, Curt Meyran and John Bellew, died from their injuries; another four—Gene Stolowski, Brendan Cawley, Joe DiBernardo, and Jeff Cool—barely survived, sustaining massive injuries of their own that left several of them in the hospital for months and effectively ended their careers. Another firefighter, Richard Sclafani, died at an unrelated fire in Brooklyn that same afternoon, making that day the first since 1918 that men had died in two separate incidents in the city; the dual tragedies have come to be known as Black Sunday.

Now the surviving firefighters are telling their version of the story for the first time. To date, the men have spoken publicly only briefly, but because of litigation they’ve filed against the city, they’ve avoided giving a full account of what happened that day. In the past few months, however, the four of them have begun appearing at private firefighter gatherings to tell their story, and three of them sat with New York Magazine for their first extensive interviews, speaking out about controversies that have surrounded the fire for two years. Shouldn’t the department have outfitted the firefighters with personal-safety ropes—a piece of equipment that was once standard issue but was not provided at the time? Is the building’s landlord primarily to blame, for blocking off access to the fire escape with an illegal subdivision? Should the department have kept the six men on the fourth floor that long, given the problems with the hydrants and hoses? Or were the men themselves in part at fault for not making their situation clear to the officers on the ground? The survivors’ stories also reveal for the first time something much more personal: just how deeply the tragedy has affected them and their families. Their lives—once centered around straightforward concepts like action and adrenaline, honor and bravery—are more complicated than they once were. They are heroes, but they are lost.

It took the Ladder 27 crew longer than they expected—about six minutes—to make it just ten blocks. The blizzard was part of the problem, as was a double-parked truck on East Tremont Avenue. It didn’t help that they had the wrong address, though that was quickly corrected. When Gene Stolowski saw Engine 42 and Ladder 33 stretching hoses up to the third floor of the building, he knew this one was real. “I think we got something,” he told Brendan Cawley. “Let’s go.”

Curt Meyran, Stolowski, and Cawley walked into the front entryway, a wide foyer where they saw the first signs of smoke (John Bellew, the driver, came up a few minutes later). Up they marched, passing the guys from Ladder 33 on the third floor. But already, things had started going wrong.

At 8:05 a.m., about the same time that Ladder 27 had arrived, the driver from Engine 42 had reported the frozen hydrant. Outside, firefighters hustled to connect hoses to a booster tank on their truck, while others stretched hoses to hydrants farther away. For a moment, the third floor got water back, then lost it again; then the water came back but the pressure was too weak and the nozzle would shut. Now the hoses seemed to be frozen or ruptured: No one knew which. Without water, the fire was spreading unchecked.

When the Ladder 27 crew reached the fourth floor, Meyran told Stolowski to prop open the stairway door with his maul. Meyran, Stolowski, and Cawley slipped on their oxygen masks and walked into Apartment 4-L. Everything was pitch-black—no lights, no windows, nothing but smoke. Clothes and furniture were everywhere. Cawley had to feel his way around so he wouldn’t trip. In one of the bedrooms, he ran into another firefighter, knocking him to the floor; he looked at the uniform and saw a number three. He later guessed it was Jeff Cool, who’d made it upstairs with Joe DiBernardo and others from Rescue 3.


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