The call had come at 7:59 on a Sunday morning, the day after a January blizzard had shut down the city. There was still more than a foot of unplowed snow on East 178th Street off the Grand Concourse, and some of it was still swirling in 45-mile-an-hour gusts. Wind like that has a habit of working like gasoline on even the tiniest fires.
Five trucks from five companies inched through the snow to converge on the tenement, a cookie-cutter version of thousands of other old buildings in the South Bronx. Engine 42 got there first; its men were stretching hoses from their truck and running them upstairs. Ladder 33 got there next, and a number of its men were sent to the third floor, where the fire was burning. The firefighters from Ladder 27 and Rescue 3 had arrived next; they were sent to the floor above the fire to clear it and keep the flames from spreading upward.
When the six men got to the fourth floor, they started searching from apartment to apartment, but they’d found no civilians (except the skinny guy and naked fat lady one of the guys saw hightailing it out of there just as they came up the stairs). Now they were in Apartment 4-L, feeling their way along the walls from room to room—six men loaded down with gear, sucking in air from their tanks—and soon they got turned around, lost in the smoke. Brendan Cawley, the probie with just a month on the job, kept seeing padlocks on the doors of every room and was confused; he hadn’t been around long enough to know how many apartments in this neighborhood had been converted into cheap, crowded rooming houses. This place had been chopped up, probably illegally. Random walls and carelessly thrown-up partitions created a maze.
The men were trying to make their way to the source of the heat surge, but among the locks and the walls and the smoke, they couldn’t seem to get there. And there was another problem: The men didn’t have working hoses. First, there was a frozen hydrant; then, something seemed wrong with some of the hoses themselves. The six men on the fourth floor couldn’t fight a fire they couldn’t find—and if any fire did come, they had nothing to fight it with.
At 8:26 a.m., Curt Meyran, the lieutenant in charge of the Ladder 27 crew, checked in on his radio. He was asked about the status of the fire on the fourth floor. “Slight extension, slight extension,” Meyran said—meaning they still saw just smoke, no fire.“Ten-four,” came the response.Somewhere between 18 and 23 seconds later—still 8:26 a.m., maybe even as the responder was talking—a turret of flame roared up though the floorboards. None of them saw it coming—in an instant, all six were pinned against the windows that faced the back. “We need a line on the floor above,” someone barked into the radio. “We have heavy fire on the floor above. Rescue to Battalion. Urgent.”
In the background, another voice—no one’s sure whose—could be heard: “We got no water!”
The flames formed a wall between the men and the apartment door. Walking out was no longer an option. Meyran called in a Mayday and he and Gene Stolowski and Cawley stuck their heads outside for air. At the windows next to them were two guys from Rescue 3, Jeff Cool and Joe DiBernardo. They had lost track of the sixth man, John Bellew. It was 17 degrees outside, but even as their faces were freezing, the men felt a scorching heat on their backs. Leaning out, they could see a fire escape two windows away—but it was too far for them to jump.
Meyran called in a Mayday at 8:29. Seconds later, DiBernardo radioed an outfit on the roof: “Brothers on the roof, you’re gonna need to send a rope over the side. Roof team—send a rope over the side to the two-four side of the building.” The flames were closer now. Jeff Cool could feel them at his neck. Cool had a wife and two kids. Meyran had a wife and three kids. Bellew had a wife and four kids. Stolowski had a daughter, and his wife was expecting twin girls in June. DiBernardo’s dad was a retired deputy fire chief. Cawley had an older brother who had died on 9/11.
It will forever be remembered as Black Sunday – and now a highly-critical FDNY report into the double-fatal fire reveals how so many things went wrong on that day.
Two firefighters died and four were critically injured when fire and smoke in an illegally partitioned apartment forced them to jump from a fourth floor window.
Jeanette Meyran, Firefighter’s Widow: “You have to envision that it turned badly in seconds.”
The FDNY Internal Report of the event documented details of a long list of mistakes made from the top brass down to the front line.
Its key findings include:
Audio Radio Transmissions
sly during high stress activities.Incident commanders can only manage so much information and should divide up functions to make the span of control more manageable. During complex events, the IC should assign other personnel to functions such as accountability, radio communications, incident safety, company tracking, and resident evacuation in order for the IC to effectively focus on fire command.
Additionally,Recommendation #9: Building owners should follow current building codes for the safety of occupants and fire fighters.
Discussion: State building codes require that single room occupancies (SROs) in non-fireproof tenement buildings have automatic fire sprinklers in every hall or passage within the apartment and at least one sprinkler head in every room. This apartment building did not have sprinklers. The transformation of the 4th floor apartment into a SRO led to the construction of an interior partition wall that impeded the discovery of the fire and hindered the fire fighters’ searches. It also prevented fire fighters from reaching the rear fire escape, their secondary means of egress.
- Radio Transmission Transcripts, HERE and HERE
- Transcript of FDNY Black Sunday Fireground Communications
- Trial Begins For 3 Charged In Deadly Bronx Blaze Newsday 1/6/08
- Tenants, Manager Go On Trial For Roles In Deadly ‘Black Sunday’ Blaze NY Daily News 1/6/08
- FDNY ‘Black Sunday’ Trial Opens In Bronx WCBS-TV 1/5/08
- Trial Begins For Men Charged In Death OF Fire Lieutenants NY1 News 1/5/08
- News NY1 with Video, HERE
- No Way Out, new York Magazine, Jan 14, 2007, HERE
FDNY Report Says “Black Sunday” Deaths May Have Been Avoided
Anatomy of a Fall from NY1
(1) Firefighters Curt Meyran, Gene Stolowski, Brendan Cawley, and John Bellew, all from FDNY Ladder 27, arrive at 236 East 178th Street in the Bronx at approximately 8:05 a.m. on Sunday, January 23, 2005. Firefighters Jeff Cool and Joe DiBernardo, from the FDNY’s Rescue 3 unit, arrive soon after that.
(2) With firefighters from other companies already battling the blaze on the third floor, the main site of the fire, Meyran, Stolowski, Cawley, Bellew, Cool, and DiBernardo are sent to the fourth floor to clear it and prevent the fire from spreading. The six men case the area, but their efforts are made difficult by dense smoke and the mazelike structure of the chopped-up tenement building. Because of problems with a hydrant and other equipment, the men are also operating without working hoses.
(3) A burst of fire erupts through the third floor, trapping the six firefighters in Apartment 4-L. Their attempts to find a safe way out are thwarted by an illegal partition wall (in red, above) that hampers their efforts to find a fire escape.
(4) With the flames inches from their backs, the six men are forced to jump from four windows—a 50-foot drop. Meyran and Bellew die from the fall. They are survived by their wives and seven children, ranging in age from 5 months to 16 years old. The four other men suffer multiple critical injuries, are left with permanent disabilities, and are forced to retire from duty. The four survivors and two widows later sue the city for not supplying the firefighters with personal-safety ropes. Pinning the blame on the partition walls, the Bronx district attorney charges the building’s landlord and two tenants with manslaughter, criminal negligence, and reckless endangerment. Both legal actions are ongoing.
No Way Out
Then came the transmissions:
8:30:43: “Mayday! Mayday 56! Man down, fell out the window!”
8:30:48: “Mayday! Mayday!”
8:30:49: “Fireman down in the rear! Two firemen down in the rear!”
8:30:51: “Two firemen down in the rear—let’s go!”
8:30:54: “Seventy-five, put your pumps…”
8:30:58: “Mayday! Mayday! Two firemen jumped from the top floor in the rear. We need a…”
8:31:09: “Brother in the…”
8:31:15: “Start a mixer off—we got a whole company in the rear, they had to jump.”
8:31:23: “No way, no…”
“We got six guys…”
8:31:35: “Roof, let the rope down!”
8:31:40: “Mayday! Mayday in the rear! We need EMS in the rear.”
8:32:20: “One, two, three, four, five, six who jumped in the rear! We need massive EMS here! Massive injuries!”
On the morning of January 23, 2005, six firefighters jumped out of four fourth-story windows of a tenement at 236 East 178th Street in the Bronx, falling 50 feet to the pavement. Two of them, Curt Meyran and John Bellew, died from their injuries; another four—Gene Stolowski, Brendan Cawley, Joe DiBernardo, and Jeff Cool—barely survived, sustaining massive injuries of their own that left several of them in the hospital for months and effectively ended their careers. Another firefighter, Richard Sclafani, died at an unrelated fire in Brooklyn that same afternoon, making that day the first since 1918 that men had died in two separate incidents in the city; the dual tragedies have come to be known as Black Sunday.
Now the surviving firefighters are telling their version of the story for the first time. To date, the men have spoken publicly only briefly, but because of litigation they’ve filed against the city, they’ve avoided giving a full account of what happened that day. In the past few months, however, the four of them have begun appearing at private firefighter gatherings to tell their story, and three of them sat with New York Magazine for their first extensive interviews, speaking out about controversies that have surrounded the fire for two years. Shouldn’t the department have outfitted the firefighters with personal-safety ropes—a piece of equipment that was once standard issue but was not provided at the time? Is the building’s landlord primarily to blame, for blocking off access to the fire escape with an illegal subdivision?
Should the department have kept the six men on the fourth floor that long, given the problems with the hydrants and hoses? Or were the men themselves in part at fault for not making their situation clear to the officers on the ground? The survivors’ stories also reveal for the first time something much more personal: just how deeply the tragedy has affected them and their families. Their lives—once centered around straightforward concepts like action and adrenaline, honor and bravery—are more complicated than they once were. They are heroes, but they are lost.
It took the Ladder 27 crew longer than they expected—about six minutes—to make it just ten blocks. The blizzard was part of the problem, as was a double-parked truck on East Tremont Avenue. It didn’t help that they had the wrong address, though that was quickly corrected. When Gene Stolowski saw Engine 42 and Ladder 33 stretching hoses up to the third floor of the building, he knew this one was real. “I think we got something,” he told Brendan Cawley. “Let’s go.”
Curt Meyran, Stolowski, and Cawley walked into the front entryway, a wide foyer where they saw the first signs of smoke (John Bellew, the driver, came up a few minutes later). Up they marched, passing the guys from Ladder 33 on the third floor. But already, things had started going wrong.
At 8:05 a.m., about the same time that Ladder 27 had arrived, the driver from Engine 42 had reported the frozen hydrant. Outside, firefighters hustled to connect hoses to a booster tank on their truck, while others stretched hoses to hydrants farther away. For a moment, the third floor got water back, then lost it again; then the water came back but the pressure was too weak and the nozzle would shut. Now the hoses seemed to be frozen or ruptured: No one knew which. Without water, the fire was spreading unchecked.
When the Ladder 27 crew reached the fourth floor, Meyran told Stolowski to prop open the stairway door with his maul. Meyran, Stolowski, and Cawley slipped on their oxygen masks and walked into Apartment 4-L. Everything was pitch-black—no lights, no windows, nothing but smoke. Clothes and furniture were everywhere. Cawley had to feel his way around so he wouldn’t trip. In one of the bedrooms, he ran into another firefighter, knocking him to the floor; he looked at the uniform and saw a number three. He later guessed it was Jeff Cool, who’d made it upstairs with Joe DiBernardo and others from Rescue 3.