YAPHANK, N.Y. (PIX11) — Retired FDNY Deputy Chief Joe DiBernardo was out of the country on Jan. 23, 2005, when he received a call no parent wants to get.
His only son, Joey — an FDNY firefighter — was one of six men forced to jump from the top floor of a burning Bronx building because illegal apartment partitions blocked the fire escapes. The hydrants had frozen because of freezing temperatures during a blizzard.
The day came to be called “Black Sunday,” after fire Lieutenants Curtis Meyran and John Bellew were killed. Firefighter Richard Sclafani later died in Brooklyn while battling a fire.
Joey DiBernardo, then 33, shattered almost every bone in his pelvis, legs, and feet. He was promoted to lieutenant but never fully recovered from his physical and emotional pain.
Joey D, as he was affectionately called, died in his bedroom on Nov. 22, 2011, with his beloved dog, Rescue, protectively lying on top of him.
“He passed away, but he’ll never be forgotten,” his father said this past Friday as he organized the 10th annual training seminar for the Lt. Joseph P. DiBernardo Memorial Foundation.
One of the enduring stories from “Black Sunday” involves DiBernardo helping his partner from Rescue 3, Jeff Cool, who was stuck at the window next to him in the burning tenement on E. 178th Street. Cool was the only one of six firefighters who were trapped on the top floor carrying a personal safety rope.
“I got fire blowing out over my head, I’m at a window air conditioning unit,” Cool recalled. “Five stories above the ground, and he’s like, ‘Throw me the rope.'”
Cool got emotional, remembering that DiBernardo was more concerned for his well-being.
“He said, ‘You got a wife and kids, you go first,'” Cool recounted.
The FDNY had discontinued the personal safety rope program in 1999, according to Cool.
DiBernardo wrapped Cool’s rope around his arm and lowered his partner about 10 feet before the rope broke. Cool thinks his fall was lessened, because of DiBernardo’s bravery.
“I still wear a piece of the rope every day on my wrist,” Cool told PIX11 News.
The surviving firefighters and the families of those who died settled a lawsuit with New York City, and the FDNY brought back the personal safety systems, known as PSS. The devices cost between $375 and $1,200.
Chief DiBernardo told PIX11 News all of the money raised by his son’s foundation goes to departments in need around the country.
“This year, we’ve reached a milestone of surpassing a million dollars in grants to 95 fire departments in 25 states across America,” DiBernardo said.
The training seminar this year drew 350 firefighters from around the United States and Canada. Robert Acosta said he flew in from Austin, Texas.
“They actually have a class that recreates the circumstances that Joey D went through and saving yourself and how to save members of your crew,” said Acosta.
Joey D’s father is proud of the reach the annual seminar has.
“Our little foundation has done a lot of things,” DiBernardo said. “We’ve trained over 2,000 firefighters here from all across the country and Canada.”
DiBernardo said those firefighters return home and teach their colleagues what they’ve learned.
On Sunday, the remaining Black Sunday survivors, Eugene Stolowski and Brendan Cawley, joined Jeff Cool for a talk at the seminar and posed with a service dog named Joey D.
Cool’s oldest son, Jefferey, is now an FDNY paramedic, waiting to join the next class of firefighters. Jefferey and his younger brother, Dylan, called Cool’s Black Sunday partner, Uncle Joey.
DiBernardo said his son died for the job he truly loved.
“I took him to the firehouse when he was 11 years of age, and he just loved it,” he said. “He got to fulfill his dream. He got to become a New York City firefighter. I’m sure he’s looking down on us and he’s happy because we’re fulfilling his legacy of saving lives.”