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No Way Out

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Brendan Cawley’s mother pleaded with the doctors not to let him die. Cawley’s brother Michael, also a firefighter, was killed on 9/11—one son lost was more than enough. In fact, Cawley was the luckiest, relatively speaking, of the four survivors. Despite his multiple fractures and a brain hemorrhage, he was released from the hospital just six days after Black Sunday. At first, he thought he’d be back at the firehouse by September. “I didn’t have a shot,” he realizes now. For the next year, he was in physical therapy. He did light duty at the fire academy last summer, helping out instructors and hanging around with the probies. But then he needed another shoulder surgery in September and was placed back on medical leave. Kerry Kelly, the chief medical officer of the FDNY, has encouraged him not to give himself any deadlines. “She said to me, ‘Let’s get Brendan back to being Brendan again, and then being a firefighter.’”

The survivors and the widows share other common bonds—grief, guilt, doubt, anger. “I always tell the probies when they go out to the field that if you’re going to see this report, to take it in the bathroom stall and wipe your ass with it,” Gene Stolowski says of the fire department’s summary of the tragedy. It’s not that the report fails to deal with the ropes or illegal partition wall, he says. It’s that it weighs them equally with all the other factors; it assumes everything has the same importance. He particularly bristles at the notion that Meyran should have ordered the men out earlier. “Some guys can read this report and think that we were in an untenable position and should not have been in there. They don’t get the sense from this report that we were driven to the floor. You know, we weren’t hanging out in there for no reason. The shit hit the fan as fast as it could.”

Still, it’s not like Stolowski doesn’t replay the fire in his mind. “For whatever reason, I never went into the kitchen,” he says. He’s talking about how he might have found the hallway that led to the fire escape. “I don’t know why. Sometimes I kick myself in the ass. You always second-guess yourself.”

Then he turns wistful. “Yeah, I tell everybody I would go back tomorrow and do it again,” he says. “I will always say it’s the greatest job. To be able to do what we did—you know, just run into a burning building? It’s crazy!” He laughs. “I won most of the fires I was in. And I guess I only lost one. That was January 23rd. We lost.”

Unlike the others, Brendan Cawley is still hoping to get back to work, but even if he proves physically able, he still has emotional issues. “I don’t want to say I’m claustrophobic,” he says, “but when I think about what I had to do that day, I’m probably more scared now.” He has grown close to the widows and their families; being with them, oddly enough, helps assuage his survivor guilt. “I guess I can relate to their losses because I went through it, losing my brother,” he says. “But these poor kids, losing their dad, that’s hard. And it was so avoidable.” He says he owes a special debt to Meyran. “A lot of guys say he was the boss, he should have been the last one out,” Cawley says. “But I don’t know if I would have went if he didn’t go first.”

Joe DiBernardo was the only one of the four survivors who wouldn’t be interviewed for this story; going over Black Sunday again wasn’t good for his recovery, he said. But his feelings about the case against the landlord and tenants are clear. “They can lock them up, put them away forever on manslaughter charges,” he told a newspaper last year, “but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m not going to be a firefighter again, that I’m living with a broken body and there are two widows and all these fatherless children.” (All three defendants maintain their innocence. Ironically, one of their lawyers, Sam Braverman, has seized on the ropes issue as a defense. “The illegal subdivision did not cause their deaths,” he said last March. “If these firemen had ropes, my client would not be in jail right now.’’)

Even from his bed at St. Barnabas, Jeff Cool begged fire commissioner Nicholas Scopetta to bring back personal-safety ropes. Now he’s become an activist on the subject, lecturing at fire trade events and lobbying officials around the country. New York’s getting them is not enough, he says—though he says it’s clear why the men didn’t have them that day. “I’m telling you right now, it had everything to do with dollars.” As sure as he’s standing there, he says, the $375 rope he’d bought with his own credit card saved him and Joe DiBernardo. Now he wants national legislation for every firefighter to have one. Failing that, he’d like the National Fire Protection Association to change its standards to include personal ropes and harnesses for each firefighter. He’s also lectured probies on the subject, “but I think I scared the shit out of them, because I haven’t been asked back.”


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