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No Way Out

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None of the men saw John Bellew fall. But a lieutenant who was in the backyard told Cawley that he saw Bellew climb out, hang on for a few seconds, then release, just as Curt Meyran had. “It’s kind of consoling, I guess,” says Cawley, “to know that John knew what was going on and made the decision, rather than just jumping out.”

The bodies of six firefighters now lay on the ground. When Stolowski had let Cawley go, the probie had tipped backward and started falling headfirst. “I kind of tucked my chin to my chest because I knew I was falling upside down,” he says. “I didn’t want to land on my head.” He landed on his upper back, shattering his right shoulder, cracking his ribs, splitting his skull, and collapsing a lung. He used his right arm to pull himself up to a sitting position so he could breathe easier. Then he passed out.

Stolowski caught something of a break when the top of his shoulder pack got snagged on the window guard, swinging his body around—had he fallen headfirst, he almost certainly would have died. Still, the force of the impact broke his neck. He stopped breathing, but when a firefighter administered CPR, Stolowski awoke, feeling snow on his face. His oxygen tank had kept his head from snapping so far back that he would have died.

DiBernardo landed feet first, shattering everything from his waist down. “I didn’t even feel the cold,” he would say later. “All I felt was the pain in my legs.” Cool broke both his shoulders, fractured his skull in two places, shattered his pelvis in three, and broke thirteen ribs and an arm. But he was conscious enough to talk to two firefighters who held a shower curtain over him to keep burning embers from falling on him.

Eileen Bellew made it to St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx in time to say good-bye to John. When his body was taken out of the ER, 200 firefighters were packed in the hospital hallways, lining up in a double formation and saluting.

Racing in an FDNY van to the hospital, Jeanette Meyran tried to calm herself. There’s no chaplain with me? We’re good, then. We’re going to St. Barnabas, not the Burn Center? All right. She was ushered into the hospital past a gauntlet of TV-news crews. Firefighters escorted her through the crowds and into a waiting room. There was a man there she’d seen before, a man much shorter than Curt. It was Mayor Bloomberg.

“Mrs. Meyran,” the mayor said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry for what?”

The mayor flinched. She hadn’t been told yet.

“He did it for the city,” he said.

“He did what for the city?”

The mayor tried again. “He didn’t make it.”

It took time for Curt to be cleaned up so that Jeanette could see him. In that time, she collapsed. Finally, she was brought through hospital hallways packed with firemen still wearing their gear, grime still on their faces.

Then she saw her husband. Curt looked exhausted.

“I knew him 25 years,” she remembers. “I knew his lip would dip a little when he was tired. But this just wasn’t real. And I just kept asking him to wake up.”

The two firefighters’ funerals were full-scale FDNY tributes—one in Pearl River, the other on Long Island, each drawing more than 8,000 people. Meyran’s 16-year-old son, Dennis, wore his father’s blue FDNY jacket. Bellew’s oldest boy, Jack, wore his father’s helmet.

Black sunday was instantly seen as one of the department’s darkest moments, and no sooner had the four surviving firefighters arrived at the hospital than people started looking for causes and attempting to place blame. First, there was the issue of safety ropes. The FDNY had long supplied firefighters with them, but had stopped doing so in 2000—ostensibly because they were too bulky and the men weren’t using them (some say cost was a factor). Now the question was whether the lack of ropes cost two men their lives and four others their careers. By April 2005, the four surviving firefighters and both widows filed notices to sue the city for not supplying ropes; the cases have since been consolidated, and the lawsuit is still pending.

Next there was the matter of the chopped-up apartment. From the day after the fire, the FDNY blamed the landlord for violating the fire codes and building a wall that kept the men from the fire escape. A year after the fire, the Bronx district attorney charged three people—the landlord and two tenants—for making alterations in the building; the case is still ongoing. If convicted, the three people charged could be the first in the city to be held criminally responsible for deaths because of alterations made to their apartments.


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