Cool is just as outspoken on the question of the chopped-up apartment. “Here we are on the two-year anniversary of this fire, and there’s no end in sight on where we are with this trial,” he says. “We’ve got three criminals, safe as can be, walking around with their lives. They were enjoying Christmas, enjoying New Year’s. The four of us are screwed up beyond belief. Two of us are dead. And these guys are walking the street.”
On February 9, two weeks after the fire, with department personnel still chauffeuring her and the kids, Jeanette Meyran asked to visit the building where Curt died. She came away appalled. Even forgetting the fire, “the place was filthy,” she remembers thinking. Then she got mad. “I can’t believe he risked his life for people like that. Poor is one thing, filthy is another. This is what he was fighting for?”
Then, just as quickly, she softened. “I never knew this was what he faced every day. He risked his life—putting aside the adrenaline and the thrill-seeking. There was never an impossible situation for Curt. With him, there was always a way. He could fix it. He was so good at making us feel so secure. A few weeks later, I remember being at a mall with the kids, and my son turned and said, ‘Mommy—I feel so unprotected.’”
“It’s a dirty, dirty game,” said the widow. “Human error. Lines frozen. Hydrants. I know who to blame.”
Exiting the apartment, Jeanette made a statement to the press, who’d been tipped off to the widow’s visit. Inside, she’d seen a radiator and a TV console. Curt could have tied off to either one, had he been given a personal-safety rope. By the following October, when the city announced it was giving safety ropes to every firefighter again, Jeanette came to the event uninvited and said, “A day late and a dollar short, obviously.” Later, turning up at another FDNY event, she remarked, “I would not be here today but for a lousy piece of rope.”
As for the FDNY’s official report, she says, “It’s a dirty, dirty game. Human error. Lines frozen. Hydrants. If my husband had a rope, he might be here. If John Bellew had a rope, he might be here. I know who to blame. They died in that building. They worked for the City of New York.”
In January 2006, at a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the fire, Bloomberg and Jeanette met again.
“Jeanette,” she remembers him saying. “You have to stop this crusade. It’s been a year. You have to move on. Curt would not want his widow to live this way.”
“I appreciate your concern,” she remembers replying. “But how does that help me and my children?”
Bloomberg looked away from her. “Take care of this woman,” he said, and walked away.
“There’s a protocol for the FDNY widow,” Jeanette says now. “You’re in shock, then you go away. I’m not following that protocol.”
Eileen Bellew is also a party to the ropes lawsuit. But unlike Jeanette, she’s reluctant to play a part in any publicity about the tragedy. In a sense, culpability is a nonissue for her; she’s resisted making her husband’s life about any one issue. “I still have to get up every morning,” she said when the charges were filed, “and take care of four kids.”
Jeff Cool is retiring today. It is the Tuesday before Christmas, and Cool, wearing a black Rescue 3 golf shirt and dark-blue jeans, is at the FDNY headquarters in Brooklyn. “Why now?” someone he knows asks him in the lobby. The answer has to do with his medical benefits: He’ll still have three-quarter’s salary, but now that he’s sufficiently recovered, he’ll go to an HMO.
Cool takes the elevator to the office where the final paperwork will be done, wandering through a maze of gray cubicles and stopping at one in the back. There is a woman sitting there. He takes a breath.
“I’m retiring today,” he tells the woman.
“Regular or three-quarters?” she asks.
“Three-quarters,” he says. “Here’s the form.”
She looks at the form. “Oh, you’re Mr. Cool!”
“Yeah,” he says. “The chief told you about me?”
“Yeah. How you feeling?”
“Pretty good,” he says. “Well, I have pain every day. I’m lucky to be alive.”
“I hear that.”
It’s time to get a picture taken for his retired-firefighter I.D. “You’ll have to put a firefighter shirt on,” she says.
He glances at his Rescue 3 golf shirt—but she points to a gray filing cabinet behind him. Dangling from the lock on metal hangers are a few FDNY dress shirts with ties pre-done around their collars.
He has a choice: white or blue. He puts on a white shirt and black tie.