NEW YORK (PIX11)—A retired, FDNY deputy chief spoke through tears--and some laughter--as his year-long quest to get his late, firefighter son department recognition came to a close Tuesday.
A plaque honoring Lieutenant Joseph P. DiBernardo, Jr. -- who was 40 when he died -- was unveiled at his beloved, Rescue 3 fire company on Washington Avenue in the Bronx, two days before the one year anniversary of his death. With Mayor Michael Bloomberg in attendance, Fire Commissioner, Salvatore Cassano, pointed out: "Every person in this neighborhood will know Joey's story."
DiBernardo, Jr. was forced to jump four stories from a Morris Heights apartment building on January 23rd, 2005--with five other firefighters--to escape raging flames that he once described as a "freight train" of fire.
DiBernardo had held a rope and lowered one of the men, Jeff Cool, trying to lessen his fall. The six men were trapped, with no way out but the windows, because the apartments had illegal partitions that blocked the fire escapes. The fire was especially difficult to respond to, during a winter blizzard, with hydrants and hoses that weren't working well.
Two of the men who jumped that morning, Lieutenant Curtis Meyran and John Bellew--posthumously promoted to Lieutenant--died after the initial fall. Another firefighter, Richard Sclafani, died in a Brooklyn incident that morning, on a day that came to be known in the FDNY as "Black Sunday".
The other, four Bronx firefighters--including DiBernardo--suffered debilitating injuries. DiBernardo broke every bone in his body, below his pelvis, underwent twenty hours of surgery, and spent eighteen days in a coma--receiving the "last rites" two times.
PIX 11 followed the recovery of the four survivors for a solid year--and spoke to DiBernardo of his struggles with excruciating pain and depression, as a result of the "Black Sunday" fire, an event that forced him to retire.
DiBernardo served as a consultant on technical rescue operations around the country--and even overseas--after his retirement and worked hard to put his post-FDNY life back together. He adopted a dog he named "Rescue", became godfather to his niece, Gabriella, and made plans to go back to college. When he was found dead in his bedroom on November 22nd, 2011--with his dog resting atop his body--his family was devastated.
The Suffolk County Medical Examiner issued a report, calling DiBernardo's death an accidental overdose of painkillers and anti-depressants. His family said DiBernardo suffered short-term memory problems and may have accidentally taken extra medicine. And so it was that DiBernardo's father began his mission to get his son's death recognized as "line of duty"--even though it happened nearly seven years after the Black Sunday fire.
The retired deputy chief gathered affadavits from Joey DiBernardo's doctors and physical therapists, who pointed very specifically to the "Black Sunday" fire as the root of all his physical and emotional pain.
On Tuesday, the Fire Commissioner spoke from a podium, directly to DiBernardo's parents, Joe and Barbara. "Joe, when you sent me that documentation," Commssioner Cassano said, "it became clear and indisputable that he, in fact, died from his body being so badly broken that day."
"Joey earned this hallowed honor reserved for those killed in the line of duty. He made the supreme sacrifice, and he has earned this recognition," Cassano added.
Earlier, Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke, making note of the Thanksgiving holiday this week, which will fall on the exact anniversary of DiBernardo's death. "Remember what your son left behind," the Mayor said, "and what he would have wanted you to do .to make a better life for those that he loved." The Mayor also talked about DiBernardo's thirteen years of service to the city, saying, "He never stopped giving all that he could for the rest of us, and he really is a role model."
One very poignant moment in the ceremony came when Jeff Cool, DiBernardo's Rescue 3 colleague, spoke about Joey DiBernardo's selflessness on that January morning. Cool was standing on top of a portable air conditioner, at a separate, 4th floor window, when he mentioned to DiBernardo that he had a safety rope. DiBernardo told Cool to throw the rope over to him, so he could try to lower Cool.
"It was because of a rope--and a brave, extraordinary man," Cool said, "that I'm alive today and I get to see my children grow up and to grow old with my best friend, Jill." Cool ended by saying, "See you on the top floor, Joey D. My brother, my friend."
Later, Cool's sons--Jeff and Dylan--filled up with tears, as they showed their gratitude for Joey D. "It's emotional," said Dylan, "We called him Uncle Joey for a reason." Jeff, Jr. added, "He was a very big part of my life, Uncle Joey."
Some of the most moving moments came in the final speech from Joey DiBernardo's father, retired Deputy Chief, Joseph DiBernardo.
"He put out his first fire at the age of 10, a rubbish fire on Delancy Street," the elder DiBernardo recalled. "He was so happy."
The father joked that his son used to pin up posters of other firemen in his bedroom and called them his heroes, without making reference to his own father. But DiBernardo Sr. grew emotional recalling how the two men later worked together in the rubble of the World Trade Center, after the 9/11 terror attacks. "The two of us up on that pile, or down below, side by side, father and son. Both doing what they love to do. How many fathers get to do that?", the father said, his voice choked with emotion.
The father elicited laughter when he talked about his son's exploits in Paris and Joey D's many girlfriends. But he welled up again when he talked about cleaning up his son's house, after Joey D's death. "When I went to his man-cave in the basement, I saw all the photos of his father," the retired chief said, "so I guess I really must have been one of his heroes after all."
The plaque bearing Joseph P. DiBernardo's likeness was then unveiled on the Wall of Honor at Rescue 3, hanging now with eight firefighters who perished in the 9/11 attacks and several others who gave their lives years before, in the line of duty.
DiBernardo's father and mother later stood by the plaque with Mary Murphy of PIX 11, telling yours truly, "He's where he belongs. Isn't it beautiful? He's where he belongs."