Black Sunday (2005)

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Black Sunday has been used to describe January 23, 2005, when three firefighters of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) were killed in two fires: two at a tenement fire in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx, with four others being seriously injured, and one at a house fire in the East New York section of Brooklyn. It was the deadliest day for the FDNY since the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001 and particularly shocking since two different deadly fires occurred on the same day.

Bronx fire[edit]

The Bronx fire started on the third floor of a tenement on East 178th Street off the Grand Concourse, and may have been caused by an extension cord to a portable heater setting fire to a mattress.[1] Three alarms were called: Engine Company 42, Ladder Company 33, Ladder Company 27, and Rescue Company 3 were involved in fighting the fire.[2] The alarm call was made at 7:59 on a cold, windy morning the day after a blizzard, and snow hampered the engines in reaching the address; the closest hydrant was frozen, and some hoses were either frozen or cracked.[2]

The apartments had been illegally subdivided using drywall partitions.[2][3] Six firefighters on the fourth floor were trapped when the fire flashed through the door of the apartment, unable to find their way to the fire escape, and decided to jump from windows. Only two had an escape rope, which one of them had bought for himself.[2][4] Two were killed in the fall: John G. Bellew and Lieutenant Curtis W. Meyran, who was in command of Ladder 27.[1][2][5] The other four, Brendan Cawley, Jeff Cool, Joe DiBernardo, and Gene Stolowski, were severely injured and disabled and had to retire.[2] DiBernardo died six years later;[4][5] he had been promoted to lieutenant in May 2005[2] and Bellew received a posthumous promotion.[6]

Brooklyn fire[edit]

The Brooklyn fire, later the same day, was in the basement of a two-family house on Jerome Street in East New York. People attending a birthday party reported smelling smoke; a group of firefighters from Ladder Company 103 who were investigating withdrew from the basement when the heat became too intense, but one, Richard T. Sclafani, did not come out and was found unconscious on the stairs after apparently catching his equipment on a coat rack. He was pronounced dead at Brookdale Medical Center, bringing the total number of firefighter deaths that day to three, the highest number in one day since the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center and, unusually, in two separate fires.[1][3]

Aftermath of Bronx fire[edit]

The FDNY issued personal safety ropes to firefighters until 2000, when it discontinued the practice saying that they were too bulky and were not being used. The department's official report on the fire, issued in September 2005, stated that ropes would have been helpful, and they were issued again starting a month later;[2] since 2006 FDNY firefighters have been equipped with a hook, a rope and a sliding mechanism.[5] The report also blamed the firefighters for poor communication and for remaining too long on the fourth floor given the conditions, and those operating the pump for poor understanding of the equipment.[2]

The FDNY assigned a large part of the blame for the deaths to the building code violation for the subdivision of the apartment. The Bronx County District Attorney charged the landlord and two tenants in connection with the deaths.[2] In criminal trials in 2009 the tenants, who had erected the partition, were found not guilty of criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment, while two former owners of the building were found guilty, but the verdict was reversed a year later.[3][4]

The surviving firefighters and the families of those who were killed announced their intention to file lawsuits against the city over the lack of safety ropes.[2] The civil suit began in September 2015.[4] Meyran's family reached a settlement; in February 2016 a New York State Supreme Court jury awarded damages of $183 million to the remaining five, of which approximately $140 million was to be paid by the city and the rest by one of the former owners.[3][5] The families had reached a settlement with the former owner shortly before and, in September 2016, settled with the city for $29.5 million.[7]

Annually, friends, family and colleagues gather on a January Saturday morning for an 11am memorial mass and service at Brooklyn Engine 103 and Bronx Engine 46 Ladder 27 to pay homage to the trio.

NYC FDNY Plaque Ceremony 2006[edit]

New York City Fire Department (FDNY) dedicated a plaque honoring Lieutenants John Bellew and Curtis Meyran a year after Black Sunday. Hundreds of firefighters from the City joined family and friends standing in the rain without complaint. New York City Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said “The plaque dedication is a Department tradition; a way we pay respect to our lost firefighters. It is the Department’s way of reaffirming the promise each and every firefighter makes to his fellow firefighter. It is another way of saying we will never forget. It is our job today, and in the days to come, to ensure that they are not forgotten – to continue the work of these men.” Terry Bellew, John's brother spoke: “These men were doing what they loved when they met their fate.”

Richard Sclafani had a similarly well attended ceremony at the Brooklyn firehouse attended by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The Mayor said, “Every day, firefighters risk their lives for people they’ve never met. January 23rd was no different. These men will always be remembered as heroes.” Mayor Bloomberg held Firefighter Sclafani's mother's hand whilst his sister spoke: “I have always felt the strength of my brother. We will always love him and we will never forget.”[8]


  1. ^ a b c James Barron (January 24, 2005). "3 Firefighters Die in Blazes in Brooklyn and Bronx". The New York Times.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Robert Kolker (October 24, 2007). "No Way Out". New York magazine.
  3. ^ a b c d Eli Rosenberg (February 22, 2016). "Jury Awards New York Firefighters $183 Million in 2005 Blaze". The New York Times.
  4. ^ a b c d Joseph Kellard (August 14, 2015). "Seeking justice for 'Black Sunday' firefighters". Long Island Business News.
  5. ^ a b c d Barbara Ross; Ginger Adams Otis (February 22, 2016). "Families of FDNY firefighters killed or injured in Black Sunday blaze in the Bronx awarded $183 million". New York Daily News.
  6. ^ Lisa L. Colangelo (January 22, 2015). "Tenth anniversary of Black Sunday tragedy focuses on honor of the fallen firefighters and courage of the survivors". New York Daily News (erroneously stating that diBernardo was also promoted posthumously).
  7. ^ Ken Kochman (September 20, 2016). "Families of firefighters killed or injured in 'Black Sunday' fire reach $30M deal with city". New York Daily News.
  8. ^ ViewPoint, 9MetroTech (February 6, 2006). "Remembering Three Heroes" (PDF). www.NYC.Gov. Retrieved June 6, 2018.

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