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No Way Out

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From left, Jeff Cool outside his home in Rockland Country; Brendan Cawley outside his apartment in midtown Manhattan.  

Ten minutes passed as the six men from the two units did their job. The hoses still weren’t working, but they weren’t worried yet. “We’re thinking, The fire’s going out,” Stolowski remembers. “We’re thinking, This is a routine fire.” And after they smashed open a few windows in several bedrooms, the smoke began to clear, making the situation seem less urgent.

It was then that Meyran learned that the water wasn’t coming anytime soon. “We need to find a secondary means of egress,” he told Cawley. Cawley had already told him that he’d identified a fire escape. He and Meyran started feeling along the wall, trying to get to the hallway that led to it. But they were interrupted when the vibrating alert on their oxygen tanks went off. They each had just a quarter-tank left—enough in most cases to get out of a building. “Let’s go,” Meyran said.

They were on their way back to the stairwell when they spotted Stolowski, who had been in the next bedroom. His tank was already empty, and he’d pulled off his mask. They hustled Stolowski to a window, outside of which a team of firefighters on the roof had dangled a mask and supplemental oxygen tank. Meyran stood at the window. Stolowski, who was next to him with Cawley, had pulled the mask in and was on his knees, gulping air. “What I had planned on is, we’ll all take breaths and just walk out of the apartment,” Stolowski says. “Meyran had asked Brendan to take his mask off. I was going to give him the mask. That’s when the heat hit him.”

They didn’t see the fire as much as feel it. Cawley describes it as a wave of heat that smacked him in the head. Suddenly the probie was hearing Meyran calling Mayday. “I’m just out of the academy,” Cawley recalls, “but I knew we were in a world of shit.”

They were trapped at the window now, the three of them. Meyran told Cawley to take off his mask to prepare him for what they knew had to happen next. They were in the back of the building, staring into an alley ten feet below street level. If they jumped, they would plunge 50 feet.

The window wasn’t big enough for three men in helmets and masks with tanks on their backs to poke their heads out. So Meyran got on all fours, straddling the window—one arm and leg inside, one arm and leg outside. Stolowski and Cawley knelt at the windowsill, leaned over Meyran’s back, and breathed. “It was unbelievable that he could even think of doing that,” Cawley says. They waited for help, but by then, they knew there was no way out but the window.

Meyran’s place at the window made him the natural choice to jump first. Cawley and Stolowski held on to Meyran as he dangled from the windowsill. Stolowski let go of Meyran first, then Cawley let go of him. The probie watched as his boss fell to the ground. Cawley was next: Stolowski grabbed him and pulled him up and over the windowsill—but kept holding the probie’s coat, lowering him as far as he could before letting him go.

By then the fire was too strong for Stolowski to finesse his exit. He jumped out the window headfirst. Dangling on a window gate for a few moments, he could see through a lower window into the third-floor. If fire blows out that window, I’m gonna get cooked, he thought. Then he fell.

Jeff Cool had been walking toward Meyran, Cawley, and Stolowski from the kitchen when the fire came. He wound up standing at a window next to the one where the three others had gathered. Sticking his head outside, Cool was waiting for a rope from above—he’d heard something on his radio about the roof men—but help never came. At the next window, one bedroom over, Cool saw Joe DiBernardo, yelling into his walkie-talkie for help. A minute later, at 8:30 a.m., the heat was too much for both men. DiBernardo radioed again. “We’re bailing out of here. Hurry up!”

Cool pulled out a safety rope—one he’d bought months earlier at a trade show. He was the only one with a rope. He called over to DiBernardo, “I have nowhere to anchor it!”

“Throw it to me,” DiBernardo said. “I’ll anchor you.”

Cool threw one end of the rope. He wanted DiBernardo to drop first, with Cool anchoring him. But DiBernardo shook his head.

“You have a wife and kids,” he said. “You go first.”

DiBernardo lowered Cool out of the window. When Cool swung over the edge, he slammed into the side of the building, knocking the wind out of him. Either the rope slipped or Cool let go—even he isn’t sure—but then Cool fell. DiBernardo tied the rope to the window, lowered himself down, and then dropped.


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