This proud father refuses to let a decade of grief for his son go up in smoke.
On Friday, retired FDNY Assistant Deputy Chief Joe DiBernardo Sr. will mark the 10th anniversary of the infamous Black Sunday Fire that would claim the lives of three firefighters, including his son Joseph Jr.
This loving father tries not to dwell on the deaths and suffering of that day so much as tirelessly work full time in his retirement years to save the lives of other firefighters through a foundation set up in his son's honor.
On Friday night at the Hyatt Long Island, he will host an annual safety seminar/fundraiser for the Joseph P. DiBernardo Foundation.
A little background: On Jan 23, 2005, “a freight train of fire” engulfed an illegally subdivided E. 178th St. tenement, trapping Fire Lt. Curtis Meyran and Firefighter John Bellew, who had a grim choice of burning to death or jumping 50 feet down.
They leaped. They died.
In an ante-room of this raging hell, Firefighter Joseph DiBernardo Jr. had the heroic presence of mind to decide that because he was single and childless that he would lower his brother firefighter Jeffrey Cool, married with kids, four stories with their single safety rope. Thirty feet from the ground, Cool lost his grip and fell, but he survived.
Anyone who tells you that losing a son gets easier with time isn’t being honest. I miss my son every minute of every day.
Then DiBernardo tied off the same rope and lowered himself. The line snapped. He fell three stories, shattering every bone below his waist.
“Joseph almost died twice in the hospital from respiratory arrest and pneumonia,” says his father, who served 35 FDNY years. Joseph Jr. endured skin grafts, speech therapy, physical therapy and psychological counseling and was prescribed 10 medications. Six years after the fire, Joseph accidentally took his meds twice in one day, leading to an accidental overdose.
Joe Sr. fought the city through bureaucratic channels and in the press, including in this space, to have his son recognized as a hero who’d made the ultimate sacrifice for this city. Former Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano would eventually determine that Joseph DiBernardo Jr.’s passing was a line of duty death because it was directly related to the Black Sunday Fire. His name was added to the FDNY Wall of Honor.
If you thought that Joe Sr. would just go back to just coaching CYO basketball and enjoying his well-earned pension with his wife, Barbara, you had another lifelong alarm to answer.
“Anyone who tells you that losing a son gets easier with time isn’t being honest,” Joe Sr. says. “I miss my son every minute of every day. Joey suffered for six years but still traveled across the country instructing other firefighters on safety and the importance of proper equipment like fire ropes.”
Joe Sr. says the Black Sunday Fire led Mayor Mike Bloomberg to once again make safety ropes mandatory in the FDNY.
“Joey died in 2011,” says his father. “So in 2012, after he was recognized as the hero he was, I started the Lt. Joseph P. DiBernardo Memorial Foundation, which raises money to provide life-saving equipment and training to fire departments across the country.”
Looking back 10 years, he says the sadness and some anger lingers.
“The landlord who subdivided that tenement into a fire trap was convicted in court,” says Joe Sr. “But the judge set aside the verdict. No one was brought to justice. That hurts. But some good has come from the bad. FDNY has ropes now. Generous foundations like Denis Leary’s donate to us to help save more lives in honor of my son and the other firefighters who died or were injured on Black Sunday.”
He says the FDNY remembers infamous fires like the 23rd St. fire, Waldbaums, Black Sunday.
“But the names of the men who suffered and died heroically are often forgotten,” he says. “I want my son’s name to be remembered as a guy who kept saving other firefighters with equipment and training even after he died from the injuries he suffered on Black Sunday. That’s my way of keeping my son Joey alive.”
For more information, visit www.joeydfoundation.org