Jury awards ‘Black Sunday’ firefighters, families $183 million in damages

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MORRIS HEIGHTS, The Bronx — A Bronx jury on Monday found both the City of New York, and the landlord, responsible for a 2005 tragedy that forced six firefighters to jump from the top floor of a burning building on E. 178th Street.

The jury awarded damages to three firefighters and two, surviving families totaling $183 million.

Two firemen, Curtis Meyran and John Bellew, were killed instantly after the jump during a winter blizzard on January 23, 2005, a day that came to be known as “Black Sunday.”

A third, Joseph DiBernardo, died nearly seven years later from his debilitating physical and emotional injuries.

Another firefighter—Richard Sclafani—had died in Brooklyn during a different call on January 23, 2005, but he was not part of this case.

The surviving firefighters--and the families of two of the deceased men--sued the owner of the building for allowing the construction of illegal partition walls in the apartment, which blocked access to the fire escape.

They sued the city for not providing firefighters with personal, safety ropes—equipment which had been discontinued in 2000.

The jury assigned liability of 80 percent to the City and 20% to the landlord.

“My reaction? I was crying,” said retired firefighter, Jeff Cool, who survived the jump, “and not tears of joy.  It’s not going to make us whole.”

Cool broke many bones in his body and needed massive amounts of blood transfusions after the incident.

He testified during the three month trial, along with the other survivors and the father of the late Joseph DiBernardo.

Cool, who worked in Rescue 3 with Joey DiBernardo, was the only fireman who had his own, personal safety rope that morning.

As the flames raged into the apartment where he was trapped with the other men, DiBernardo told Cool to give him the rope.  DiBernardo, who was single, said he would hold it, as Cool—a father of two sons—attempted to get to safety first.  But the rope broke.

“The money really means nothing to me,” Cool said.  “I’d rather be back in the firehouse; I’d rather go back to January 22, 2005, before this happened.  We got trapped because of greed and some slumlord trying to make a buck. We deal with survivor’s guilt and PTSD.”

Brendan Cawley, who had recently graduated from the Fire Academy in 2005, was at a window with Firefighter Eugene Stolowski, who was paralyzed from the neck down for two months after the jump.

Stolowski eventually walked again, but Cawley was profoundly impacted emotionally by what happened.

“Like every day since this terrible tragedy, I’m just thinking of my four, brave brothers who are no longer with us and their families,” Cawley told PIX11 Monday.

Cawley lost his own brother, Michael—also a firefighter—in the 9/11 terror attacks that brought down the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan.

The lawfirm of Sullivan Papain Block McGrath and Cannavo P.C. handled the trial for the firefighters.  The family of Lt. Curtis Meyran settled its case before the verdict.

Lead partner in the firm, Vito Cannavo, said in a statement: “There are two important issues in this case.  First, it demonstrates that a governmental entity is not immune from liability when it fails to provide its firefighters, who put their lives on the line every day to protect our citizens, with proper safety equipment to fulfill their duties.  Second, this case reaffirms clearly that landlords are to be held accountable for turning a blind eye to unsafe conditions that exist in their buildings.”