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No Way Out


In September 2005, the FDNY filed a response of sorts to many of the questions about Black Sunday in the form of its official fatality report. The product of dozens of interviews and reviews of the transmissions and logs from that day, the report acknowledged that ropes might have been helpful that day but stopped short of recommending reissuing them departmentwide. The wall that blocked the fire escape was cited as a problem, as was the weather. But the report found fault elsewhere too—particularly with the men on the scene. For the first time, human error was suggested as a possible factor in the tragedy.

The six victims, according to the report, stayed on the fourth floor too long without a working hose line and failed to tell anyone on the ground that they were essentially trapped. Others were blamed, too—like the men on the ground who didn’t order the men back downstairs as soon as the hoses failed and the men working the booster water pump when the hydrant failed—who, the report says, might not have understood how certain new equipment worked. And Curt Meyran, the report found, didn’t identify himself properly with his first Mayday call.

The issue of whether the city is culpable for anything it did or didn’t do, it bears noting, was scrupulously avoided. But a month after the report was released, the FDNY brought back the ropes.

It’s a clear day just before New Year’s, and Gene Stolowski is standing in the driveway of his split-level house in the foothills of the Catskills, an hour’s drive from the George Washington Bridge, watching his 4-year-old, Briana, teeter on a bike with training wheels. Of the four survivors, Stolowski has endured the slowest and most painstaking recovery. He was given his last rites three nights after the fire when he developed a blood clot on his spine. Doctors took seven hours to place titanium screws in his skull and neck. He had eight more surgeries in the first two weeks and fought off infections and 106 degree fevers. Doctors gave him a 5 percent chance of survival. Then, weeks later, Stolowski moved his fingers. His physicians began to see hope for a recovery.

Briana was kept from seeing Stolowski for a month after the accident because he looked so scary. When Briana asked one day if her daddy loved her anymore, Stolowski’s wife, Brigid, decided to let her see him. “That’s not my daddy,” Briana said.

On February 22, 2005, Stolowski was released to a rehab center but given a 30 percent chance of walking again. He didn’t come home until the following September, eight months after the fire. On April 12, 2005, thrown into labor two months early by the stress, Brigid delivered twin girls, Kaitlin and Kailey. For the next year, Brigid was handling two newborns, a toddler, and a husband who couldn’t get to the bathroom on his own.

Stolowski’s firefighter pals built a shower on the ground level of his house and rigged it for a wheelchair. He walks now, with a limp, and he can hold the babies in his lap, even lift them. But he’ll always have a neck problem; he can’t turn his head more than a few inches in either direction. Sometime in the next few years, he’ll need another neck surgery. And money’s a problem: On permanent medical leave, he’s collecting just his regular salary now, no overtime.

The other survivors have lived through variations on the same grim themes. Doctors had to remove Jeff Cool’s vital organs from his chest to reduce swelling; he received 46 pints of blood and stayed in a coma for three weeks before being released from the hospital on February 18. He still walks with a limp, has constant pain and needs regular physical therapy, and, like Stolowski, was placed on permanent medical leave. Joe DiBernardo underwent eleven hours of surgery on his right leg and nine hours on his left; his coma lasted eighteen days, during which he twice received last rites. When he finally awoke, he was 40 pounds lighter—despite the addition of ten titanium plates and 60 screws in his lower body. On May 10, 2005, he was promoted to lieutenant, though it was clear he wasn’t going back on duty; that day, he took his first steps without a cane, and a few months later, he danced at his sister’s wedding. But he lives with chronic pain, and by Thanksgiving, he was back at Weill Cornell when some of the screws in his left leg had begun to shear off, ripping into his muscles. In January 2006, he signed his retirement papers.


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