Chief Leader - May 22, 2012by SARAH DORSEY
So when he died on Nov. 22, 2011 of an accidental ingestion of too many prescription pain pills and anti-depressants, his family said his name should go up on the FDNY's Wall of Heroes, which honors those who die in the line of duty.
Shifting Responsibility, Blame
So far it hasn't happened. The Fire Department said it's a matter for the Fire Pension Board to decide, not Commissioner Salvatore Cassano, but Joseph DiBernardo Sr. said he doesn't understand the hold-up. And Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steven J. Cassidy charged the FDNY with downplaying his heroism to obscure its own role in the deaths--by discontinuing the issuing of safety ropes that could have saved the two firefighters.
"There's no doubt about it. I think he should have a line-of-duty death recognition," Mr. DiBernardo Sr. said. His son and five other firefighters were forced to jump from a fourth-floor window that day to escape a fire described as a "freight train" of a blaze; two died, and their names are inscribed on the wall.
Mr. DiBernardo's father said the Lieutenant's name belongs with those of his comrades.
"The only difference is they didn't suffer for six years," he said. "They died that day."
Mr. Cassidy agreed.
"Joe DiBernardo is dead for one reason and one reason only. He was forced to jump out the window on Black Sunday," he said. "The guy is a hero."
Deferred to Married Colleague
Six firefighters became trapped on the fourth floor of an illegally-partitioned apartment building at East 178th St. that day. Mr. DiBernardo told Firefighter Jeffrey Cool to descend first using his own personal safety rope--the only rope they had--because Mr. Cool was married with children and Mr. DiBernardo was single. Both men slipped off the rope and fell about 40 feet. Both were seriously injured; Mr. DiBernardo broke nearly every bone from the waist down. Death seemed so imminent that he was given the last rites by a Catholic priest twice in the next week.
When he was discharged from the hospital 45 days later, his suffering didn't end. His feet were so badly damaged that years later, his father recalled that he couldn't walk 100 yards without stopping twice because of the pain. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and took three daily medications for depression and anxiety, along with a slew of other pills, including narcotic painkillers.
And perhaps most difficult, he was physically unable to continue doing the work he loved.
"He told his friends, 'The day they retired me was the day I died. They took my life away from me,'" recalled his father.
Fascinated From Childhood
Mr. DiBernardo Sr. is a retired FDNY Deputy Chief, and said from the time he was a young boy, his son was fascinated with firefighting. He'd record calls from the Fire Department scanner that Joe Jr. would play back as he maneuvered his toy fire truck up to houses made of boxes. His first job was as a Fire Alarm Dispatcher in The Bronx. And after becoming a Firefighter, he taught at the FDNY and Suffolk County Fire Academies, later being recruited for the elite Rescue 3 unit, touring the country lecturing on fire safety and co-founding a technical rescue team in Brookhaven, Long Island.
On top of the pain and depression, Mr. DiBernardo suffered from significant memory lapses. A friend in the Fire Department told his father that he'd had a pool party one weekend.
"Joey was over there smoking cigars, drinking beers and having a blast, talking to women," Deputy Chief DiBernardo said the friend recalled. "He saw him a week later and he said, 'Man, we had a great time at that party, didn't we?' And [Joey] said, 'What party?'''
The coroner's report said Mr. DiBernardo Jr., who was 40, died of an accidental overdose of anti-depressants and Dilaudid, a powerful painkiller. A warning for the drug says it has a "high risk" of "severe, possibly fatal, breathing problems," adding that the risk is higher "if you take the wrong dose/strength" or take it with other pills that affect breathing.
'Never Took a Pill' Before Fall
Deputy Chief DiBernardo said he believed the short-term memory loss his son suffered after the fire may have led him to take too many pills.
"He was a happy, great guy; he never took a pill in his life" before Black Sunday, he said, adding that he'd gathered the medical records to prove it. The pain doctor and the psychotherapist who prescribed him the drugs he overdosed on each wrote letters saying his death was directly related to the fire.
He added that the death was clearly not a suicide; after visiting an injured Firefighter he didn't know in the hospital, his son had enrolled in community college a week before his death to become a counselor for other firefighters. He'd also just made vacation reservations.
Mr. DiBernardo Sr. said the Fire Department has inscribed the names of 46 firefighters on the wall who died years after their line-of-duty injuries.
Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Francis X. Gribbon said it was "unclear why 30 and 40 years ago people who had been retired--some of them for many years--their names went on the wall," but that the Board of Trustees of the Pension Fund would review the case.
Prods Cassano to Make Call
Mr. Cassidy urged Mr. Cassano to unilaterally make the decision, adding that he didn't just believe Mr. DiBernardo deserved a space on the wall--he deserved a medal.
"Joe should have been awarded the Gordon Bennett medal that year, the highest honor awarded for safety," he said, because he urged his comrade to descend from the burning building first. Mr. Cassidy charged that the FDNY didn't issue a medal because it would have highlighted its own role in the deaths--for not issuing safety ropes. The one Mr. Cool and Mr. DiBernardo used to cut 10 feet from their fall was one they'd brought along themselves.
Shortly after the fire, the department studied the matter and began reissuing ropes a few months later.
"When they give somebody a medal, they write up in the Medal Day book what that member did that was heroic that day," said Mr. Cassidy. "They would have had to highlight that Joe was carrying his own personal rope."
Mr. Gribbon scoffed at that claim, countering that he had no record of Mr. Cassidy ever recommending that Mr. DiBernardo receive a medal that year, either. A UFA spokesman, Tom Butler, replied, "The union never nominates--they don't ask us."
The Fire Department said at the time it had stopped issuing ropes because almost no firefighters ever carried them. Mr. Butler said Mr. DiBernardo was an obvious exception to that claim.
The Lieutenant's father said he thought his son deserved a medal, but that the younger DiBernardo said not to worry about it.
'I Know What I Did'
"I know what I did; that's all I need to know," he recalled him saying.
But the Deputy Chief believes his son would want his name on the wall with his friends who died that day, Lieut. Curtis W. Meyran and Firefighter John G. Bellew.
"I think my son is not going to rest in peace until he joins Curt and John up there. I'll tell you one thing, I'm not going to," he said.
"I believe Commissioner Cassano is a good man, and once he connects the dots between the fire and my son's death, he will put his name on the wall," he added.
The Pension Board has not announced when it will make a decision, but Mr. DiBernardo said he was told by FDNY staff that his case was an administrative matter that wasn't for the board to decide. If Commissioner Cassano waits for its decision, he is worried it could "stay in limbo forever."
The department issued an official statement that the Board of Trustees will review the case.