Three FDNY Bravest Lost in Blazes in Brooklyn and Bronx
Four Others Hospitalized with Serious Injuries
|By James Barron, Reprinted from The New York Times|
|NEW YORK Three firefighters were killed yesterday in two blazes at opposite ends of New York City - two in a desperate plunge from an apartment in the Bronx as they tried to escape a fire that had burst through from the floor below, the other after he had become trapped in the basement of a burning house in Brooklyn.
On a morning of swirling snow and brutal cold, the Bronx fire escalated in a matter of minutes into a three-alarm blaze that 150 firefighters struggled to bring under control. Officials suspected it began when sparks from an extension cord attached to a heater set fire to a mattress inside a third-floor apartment at 236 East 178th Street in Morris Heights.
Six firefighters rushed to the fourth floor after hearing that upstairs tenants might have been trapped. Back on the third floor, something went wrong - officials described a sudden loss of water pressure in a hose - and flames surged through the ceiling of the burning apartment, trapping the firefighters on the fourth floor.
Mayday calls went out on their radios as the firefighters headed out the windows, hoping to survive.
Two of the six men - Lt. Curtis W. Meyran, 46, and Firefighter John G. Bellew, 37 - did not. The four others were hospitalized with numerous broken bones.
The Brooklyn fire broke out several hours later in a two-family house at 577 Jerome Street in East New York where, fire officials said, people attending a birthday party reported smelling smoke. Firefighters from Ladder Company 103 headed into the basement, searching for the origin of the blaze and for anyone it might have trapped. The cellar became so hot the firefighters decided they had no choice but to back out.
One firefighter, Richard T. Sclafani, 37, was left behind when the group retreated, fire officials said. He had apparently been trying to make it to safety when something - one fire official said equipment had become entangled with a coat rack - prevented his escape. His comrades, after taking a head count and going back for him, found him unconscious on the basement stairs. He was taken to Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center, and pronounced dead a short time later.
In all, yesterday was the deadliest day for the Fire Department since Sept. 11, 2001, when 343 members of the department died in the collapse of the World Trade Center, a catastrophe that continues to color much of the departments daily life. Only one firefighter had died in the line of duty since then, in what fire officials consider an extraordinary run of luck after the huge loss on 9/11, a loss in experience that was felt in firehouses across the city.
The last time three firefighters died was four months before the Sept. 11 attack, when three men perished on Fathers Day after an explosion in a burning building in Astoria, Queens.
But officials said that yesterday was different in a way that was unfamiliar in its grimness, even for seasoned firefighters. None of us can remember a day when we had fatalities, fire fatalities, at two separate incidents, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg described yesterday as a day wed all like to forget, but we will not.
The Bronx fire was reported at 7:59 a.m. Alex Hernandez, 45, who lived on the second floor, said he was alerted by shouts and screams: I heard somebody say, Hey, the apartment is burning down. I heard everybody screaming Fire! Fire!"
Jorge Minier, 55, who lived on the fourth floor, said he had been awakened by smoke and heat. I left without clothes on, he said. I fled by the roof in nothing more than my underwear. He dashed across the roof to a staircase in a part of the building that the fire had not reached.
The firefighters who went to the fourth floor were soon caught in a nightmare of logistics that involved a frozen hydrant and a frantic effort to get enough water into the building. Somehow, for reasons officials will investigate, that effort failed. A hose might have burst, or been blocked by icy debris.
Angel Quiles, 50, watched from the street behind the apartment building, Echo Place, as firefighters appeared at the windows on the upper floors of the apartment house. He said that people standing nearby - separated from the burning building by a locked, fenced-in parking lot - were yelling, Dont jump.
But soon, one firefighter did, and a moment later, Mr. Quiles said, another appeared at the window. This time, people at the back of a center for the elderly adjacent to the parking lot yelled for him to stay where he was, but he, too, jumped.
To others, it appeared as if the firefighters were being blown out the windows by the intensity of the blaze or an explosion of some kind.
All I could hear was people saying, Dont jump, dont jump, Mr. Quiles said.
Mr. Scoppetta and Mayor Bloomberg said the firefighters faced a terrible decision.
They are trained to not get trapped, Mr. Bloomberg said, and sometimes things happen beyond your control. He added: They were faced with the horrifying choice of either jumping from the fourth-floor window or being burned to death. They jumped, knowing they would be critically injured.
Officials said the fire spread so quickly there was no time to set up inflatable cushions for the firefighters to jump onto.
The four injured firefighters were identified as Joseph P. DiBernardo and Jeffrey G. Cool of Rescue 3 and Eugene Stolowsky and Brendan K. Cawley of Ladder 27. Firefighter DiBernardo, whose father is a retired deputy chief, was in serious condition last night at Jacobi Medical Center. The others were taken to St. Barnabas Hospital, where Mr. Cool and Mr. Stolowsky were in critical condition, and Mr. Cawley was in serious condition. Firefighter Cawleys brother, Michael, was a firefighter who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
The Brooklyn fire broke out during a childrens party on the first floor. Officials said that Firefighter Sclafani, a 10-year veteran of the department who was one of the first to arrive, apparently believed there were people in the basement and went there to look for them.
As he was on the way out, his equipment apparently became tangled in a coat rack, fire officials said. Other members of his unit realized that he had not emerged and went back to find him. He was on the staircase, unconscious and having difficulty breathing.
At Brookdale hospital, an attending physician, Michael Epter, said Firefighter Sclafani had no pulse when he arrived and never regained consciousness. He was pronounced dead at about 2:30. Dr. Epter said he died of smoke inhalation and first-, second- and third-degree burns over more than 80 percent of his body. Seven other firefighters sustained minor injuries, and no one in the house was hurt.
Shahkiran Montgomery, who lived in the basement, said the building owner was his mother-in-law. I want to send my condolences from me and my family to the firemen, he said, as a family that lives on the second floor, the Cloudens, huddled in their car, waiting for clearance from the Fire Department to return to their apartment. In Mr. Montgomerys quarters, water two to three feet deep was being pumped out. The investigation into the cause of the blaze was continuing.
The days toll, though, was obvious, as Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Scoppetta appeared at the second news conference of the day to release the name of a firefighter killed in the line of duty.
We will always remember the brave men who fell today in service to our city, the mayor said.
Reprinted from The New York Times