Bravest is finally honored
Joseph DiBernardo Jr., hero of Black Sunday fire, will join FDNY's Wall of HonorBy Denis Hamil
July 19, 2012
This father fought as hard for his son as his son fought for this city.
On Monday about 2 p.m., the phone rang in the Long Island home of retired FDNY Assistant Deputy Chief Joseph DiBernardo Sr.
“Hello,” said his wife, Barbara.
“Hi,” said the caller. “Can I speak to Joe, please?”
“Sal Cassano,” said the city’s fire commissioner.
“Oh, Sal,” Barbara said, inhaling deeply. “I’ll get Joe. But first, please, tell me: Can I breathe?”
The DiBernardos had been waiting with bated breath for a half year to learn if the name of their heroic dead firefighter son would be enshrined on the FDNY Wall of Honor, as close to closure as these grieving parents might ever get.
A “no” would leave them feeling empty, wounded and betrayed.
Back in May, I heard from an anguished Joe Sr., who was publicly campaigning to enshrine the name of his late son, Joseph DiBernardo Jr. The father made it clear the family sought no death benefits or money. DiBernardo Jr., 40, died in November from an accidental overdose of prescription medicine for severe injuries suffered in the infamous Black Sunday fire in the Bronx.
The prospects didn’t look good.
Just as they didn’t on Jan 23, 2005, when “a freight train of fire” engulfed an illegally subdivided E. 178th St. tenement. Fire Lt. Curtis Meyran and Firefighter John Bellew had a choice of burning to death or jumping 50 feet down.
They leaped. And died.
In another sizzling side room of hell, Firefighter Joseph DiBernardo Jr. made the kind of heroic choice we think happens only in movies. Because he was single and childless, he insisted on lowering his fellow Bravest, married-with-children Jeffrey Cool, four stories with his only safety rope.
Thirty feet from the ground, Cool lost his grip and fell, but survived.
Horrified, DiBernardo secured the rope. Lowered himself. The line snapped. He fell three stories, shattering every bone below his waist.
This is the stuff that nightmares are made of.
And true heroes.
Meyran and Bellew were memorialized on the FDNY Wall of Honor.
“Joseph almost died twice in the hospital from respiratory arrest and pneumonia, infection,” said his father, who served 35 FDNY years.
Joseph Jr. endured skin grafts, speech therapy, physical therapy and psychological counseling and was prescribed 10 different medications.
“Prior to the fire, Joe took no prescription medicines,” says Joe Sr. “He took prescription drugs after jumping from a fourth-story window while serving the citizens of New York.”
Joe Jr. toured the country lecturing on fire safety, enrolled in Nassau Community College, but suffered short-term memory lapses. On Nov. 22, 2011, he forgot he had already taken his meds.
He took them again, with fatal results.
“The coroner ruled it an accidental overdose,” Joe Sr. says.
But the FDNY denied him line-of-duty death status. Joe Sr. and the fire unions urged FDNY brass to include Joe Jr. on the Wall of Honor, citing a direct, smoldering line from the injuries he suffered on Black Sunday to his death. When I called the FDNY in May, a spokesman wasn’t optimistic about Joe Jr. being added to the Wall. The department feared it would set a bad precedent.
But Joe Sr. fought the FDNY brass as tenaciously as he and his son fought fires for this city.
“The column in the Daily News started it all,” Joe Sr. says now. “Then TV picked it up. Congressman Pete King lent support. The unions fought tirelessly. I presented Commissioner Cassano with a 65-page argument, citing 46 precedents. Then we waited. And waited . . .”
When the phone rang in the DiBernardo home last Monday, Barbara spoke briefly with Cassano and then silently handed the phone to her husband.
“Hi, Sal,” Joe Sr. said, fearing terrible news.
“Your son’s going up on the Wall, Joe.”
This is the stuff that leaders are made of.
Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano honors himself and the FDNY by doing the honorable thing here.
“Thank you, Sal,” Joe Sr. said, too emotional to say much more.
Afterward, Joe Sr. sat facing his wife in the kind of quiet, human moment only parents who bury a child can ever fully understand.
“We both just cried,” says Joe Sr.
“Tears of sadness and joy,” says Barbara.
“Our son can now rest in peace,” says Joe Sr.
In his grave and up on the FDNY Wall of Honor next to brother Firefighters Meyran and Bellew.
Thanks to a father who never stopped fighting for his son who died fighting for this city.