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Thread: Hazmat

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    Last edited by Neil; 02-22-2005 at 01:50 PM. Reason: Correction Scausco to Scauso---Neil

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    Firefighters' Burden

    Loss of 19 men still weighs heavy on Maspeth firefighters

    By Elizabeth Moore

    September 10, 2002

    Jim Skalkowski glanced out the firehouse doors toward the empty place in the sky where the trade center used to be, then knelt down to help another man practice binding up an injured victim for rescue.

    It still was smoking on that horizon when he first arrived here in Maspeth in October to replace one of the house's 19 lost men. The place was in upheaval. Widows were everywhere and he didn't know their names. He had never met their husbands. He didn't know what to say to the grim men of the company when they came back to the house from a funeral, or dusty and stinking of death after searching the pile.

    But now, 11 months later, most of the guys are new, like him, and like Justin Enzmann, whose knot technique he was checking in this routine training exercise.

    He supervised as Enzmann wove a crisscross lace of nylon webbing to secure a crash dummy to a backboard, as if he were preparing an accident victim to be raised from the bottom of a deep pit. Enzmann paused every few seconds to remember the steps he had been taught. It would be some time before he knew the knots as well as the eight men lost on Sept. 11 from Squad 288, one of the house's two companies, which was created four years ago to help protect the city from terrorists. Those men had drilled all day long. The trick with the knots is to practice until you can do them fast, without thinking, Skalkowski explained.

    Together they lifted their patient into a steel basket, the kind that dangles from a helicopter or a crane, and began weaving a second net of webbing to secure it inside.

    Skalkowski hadn't felt ready to join this specialized company when he got the call. He had been with the fire department just four years; Enzmann, who arrived here in April, only two. But then he thought of the men lost from Squad 288, men who built the new company from the ground up. There was talk that the company might have to fold. Someone had to carry on. He decided he would be one of them.

    "I almost felt as if I owed it to all those guys to come here and learn their job and be able to do it, after all they gave up," Skalkowski said.

    Enzmann looked down, then pointed. The webbing was wrong on one side; their patient could have fallen out. So they untied their knots, took off the webbing, and started to weave it all together again.

    It is no coincidence that al-Qaida inflicted its heaviest casualties on the house that helps form New York City's first line of defense in a terrorist attack: its lone, citywide Hazardous Materials Company No. 1 and Squad 288, one of five new, federally funded all-purpose squads trained to back up the HazMat team if weapons of mass destruction were unleashed on the city. The 19 who died - 11 from HazMat, along with the squad's eight - left 47 children fatherless that day; 33 of them younger than age 15; one a baby in the womb. The handful of men who raced from Maspeth to the towers that day and survived never got to use more than their most basic firemen's training: finding a way out through smoke and darkness, locating casualties, managing fear.

    But it was not long before city and federal officials realized how exposed New York had been left by the years of anti-terrorism expertise that had just been murdered - including the chief of HazMat, Jack Fanning, who only months earlier had testified before a Senate subcommittee on the dangers faced by firefighters responding to terrorist attacks in the urban battlegrounds of the 21st century.

    For weeks after Sept. 11, police cars ringed the Maspeth firehouse, and wary eyes watched the streams of visitors coming in with condolences and pans of lasagna. Last week, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta dropped by the house to tour a HazMat rig with a former CIA director, James Woolsey, who is going to head a new panel to intensify the department's preparations for terrorism. The McKinsey & Company report reviewing the Fire Department's handling of the trade center attack recommended expanding the department's hazardous materials capabilities.

    But in Maspeth, "HazMat 2," as an added company would probably be called, is the latest firehouse joke. The men here still are struggling to rebuild HazMat 1. It's not just a matter of replacing those killed. Ten of the most experienced men in the two companies have retired or are expected to leave by the end of the year. Most of them were prompted either by the trauma itself or by irresistible pensions from the marathon of overtime they worked recovering bodies afterward. Seven more were promoted or transferred to take the place of men lost in the disaster and four are in line for *********. All of the officers at HazMat are newcomers; only one original lieutenant from Squad 288 remains, and he's retiring at the end of the year.

    Like much of the rest of the city's battered fire department, these two companies have lost as many men in the past 12 months as they did Sept. 11 itself. Altogether, there are 29 men working in this house who weren't here a year ago. Even their officers still forget their names sometimes. The weary survivors welcomed them with terse advice: "Just do the right thing."

    "We'd tell them, hey, if you get stuck on something, give us a holler, but otherwise don't bother us," said HazMat firefighter Robert Hunter.

    Those who survived are troubled by the emerging details about deadly radio failures and poor communication that day, but it's too upsetting to talk about much. They just want this year to be over. At the firehouse meeting last month, there was much argument about how to mark Sept. 11. Everybody seemed to be in a different place. In the end, they decided to leave it a personal matter for each family and firefighter to decide.

    There was no debate though when new Squad 288 firefighter Matt Corless offered to install a 90-gallon freshwater fish tank in the TV room. Corless, who arrived here on Christmas Eve and knows all about fish, is going to bring his own 8-inch oscar from home to get things started.

    The bunting came down in July. And the officers decided a few months back to strip the walls of the memorial poetry, the posters and the teddy bears. The men were burning out on mourning; it was time to try to get back to normal.

    But the memories crowd in anyway. Over the workbench where they repair their tools, someone has left a prayer card from firefighter Adam Rand's wake. Next to the poster for this year's departmental fitness challenge, the bulletin board is crammed with benefit fliers, memorial T-shirts and stress counseling brochures. The racks for their coats and helmets have been relabeled, but the names of the dead still are written in indelible ink on lockers now stocked with other men's toothbrushes.

    Then there's the view. The Maspeth house is on a rise looking directly southwest toward where the towers used to be: the same piece of skyline that decorates FDNY shoulder patches.

    One of the dead men, Kevin Smith, was having a smoke in front of the house that morning, enjoying that skyline, and watched a passenger jet fly into the north tower, then a plume of dark smoke appeared above it. He poked his head inside.

    "Guys, you are not gonna believe what I just saw," he said.

    In the best of times it wasn't easy to staff the HazMat company.

    The unit was organized in 1984 and viewed by many firefighters with suspicion and disdain because it doesn't put out fires. HazMat men shrugged off their peers' "rush-rush-rush" mentality. They knew they were popular when it came time to pump out the gas tanks of overturned trucks, assess power plant explosions, check out worrisome smells in the subway or "mystery piles" of abandoned chemical waste. They were the ones called if it might be anthrax, phosgene gas or a dirty bomb. But after sarin attacks in a Tokyo subway spurred New York City to run its own disaster drill in 1997, officials realized one company wasn't enough.

    "If we have a whole bunch of people incapacitated in the Grand Central terminal and firefighters rush in in bunker gear, and they go down, we didn't have anything in our system to retrieve those people," said Phil McArdle, a charter HazMat firefighter who worked on terrorism plans.

    To attract ambitious firefighters to new secondary hazmat units it envisioned, called squads, the department added sweeteners: They also would put out fires like an engine company, rescue people like a ladder company and retrieve trapped firefighters like a rescue company. Former Commissioner Thomas von Essen called the creation of the city's five new squads "one of my proudest achievements."

    On May 5, 1998, the Engine Co. 288 that shared the house with HazMat was dissolved, and a new crew hand-picked by Capt. Denis Murphy moved in.

    A new company is rare in the FDNY and it was important to start the firehouse culture out right. Murphy had come up with a Latin motto: Fortuna favet fortibus (Fortune favors the bold).

    To anchor his crew he had brought in decorated veterans: Rescue 1 firefighter Hank Molle, who had led the daring rescue of two firefighters trapped in a Park Avenue blaze; Billy Quick, who had charged into a cloud of superheated steam at a Con Edison plant to save his captain; Ronnie Gies, a levelheaded master of engine company work. But most were younger men eager to learn, willing to train all day or night in one of the city's sleepier neighborhoods to build their skills: Brian Sweeney, Jonathan Ielpi, Adam Rand, Timothy Welty and Joseph Hunter.

    Murphy would take them out in the neighborhood to "play," cutting up junked cars and forcing doors at abandoned factories, cutting vent holes in the roof, rappelling down the walls.

  4. #4
    Registered User SeaBreeze's Avatar
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    When they weren't training, they were coming in on days off to fix up the dilapidated firehouse. Molle, a building contractor, designed new work benches and storage space. Quick scavenged discarded office furniture through his side job as a mover. Gies did carpentry and wiring.

    Spirits were high. Upstairs, the kitchen was filled with Sweeney's head-banger music; buckets of water were flying out the windows onto unwitting victims below; and shirtless squad members were greasing up the dinner table for rounds of "belly bowling" with condiment jars.

    The ringleader of the firehouse immaturity was Jonathan Ielpi. Ielpi left baby powder on the blades of ceiling fans and sealed toilet bowls with Saran Wrap. He heated black pepper in frying pans until tears poured down the men's faces, upended lockers and revved a chain saw in the bunk room at 3 a.m. just for the fun of seeing the sleeping men jump.

    The older men of HazMat 1 were not amused. It was bad enough their old friends from the engine company had been ousted. Within days, the senior men were holding a parley with Molle, the squad's senior man, to ask that his boys find more constructive uses for their surplus energy.

    The squad members, for their part, grumbled that HazMat guys were leaving beds unmade and dishes unwashed and were too leisurely about alarms. And they were offended that some HazMat members had a habit of skipping the group meal, an event they viewed as sacred.

    Tempers were soothed, until the next prank. Ielpi's HazMat victims were patient, and served their revenge cold. He came back one day to find someone had taken soap, water and toothbrush to his helmet, scrubbing off all the soot he had treasured as souvenirs from the job. It shone as bright as on his first day in fire school. Horrified, he kept his things under lock and key after that.

    Meanwhile, out around the city, the squad gradually built a reputation for being "squared away," professional and effective. It won its first citation for rescuing a man pinned under an elevated train in July 2000. Battalion chiefs were starting to ask for its help.

    The ones who survived Sept. 11 all seem to need to explain why they are here and their friends are not, and they have worked out those small, lifesaving details of their morning, down to the minute: A detour on the expressway. A delay trading air bottles. A hang-up at the auto shop. A decision to walk left instead of right.

    "I have a question mark, why?" asked Rick Gimbl, who had swapped his shift with someone else that day. "It's not guilt. It's: why? I wish I knew the answer."

    In HazMat, a few went to the scene and lived to tell the tale. Lt. Stan Rybak drove Fanning to the towers but couldn't follow him inside because he hadn't had time to bring his own gear. When the towers fell, he dove into a lobby and thought about his wife and children while glass and concrete blew down. Anthony Castagna, HazMat's chauffeur, had had to stay outside with the rig. Firefighter Robert Hunter, a senior man known as "Uncle Bob" around the firehouse, had raced in with three others, arriving as the bodies were falling around them. Two of the four did not make it out. Murphy, who had been disabled in a devastating Astoria hardware explosion three months earlier and wasn't working that day, could only hobble on crutches into the empty special operations command office on Roosevelt Island to answer the phones.

    Painfully aware of HazMat 1's importance, the city refused to schedule the company to search for its members at the site. Within days it was pressed into service when anthrax powder began turning up in media offices around the city.

    Inside the firehouse, it quickly became clear headquarters was going to offer little immediate help for the families. So Murphy, McArdle, then-HazMat Capt. Steve Bacci and others assembled a "war room" in a temporary kitchen set up in the engine bay while, surreally, renovation crews hammered away on the firehouse upstairs. Within days, they had half a dozen phone lines and a fax machine installed, a white message board and a clipboard for each of the 19 bereaved families with a special "family information book" they researched on their own. Maspeth Federal Savings helped set up benefit funds to handle the rapidly filling barrels of donated cash - $80,000 the first week, $2 million before it was all over. Retired firefighters came in to sort mail and lug donated goods to a trailer behind the building so there would be room for the engines.

    At the end of September, they began to put on their regulation dress blues. As the uncertain process of recovery proceeded, there would be 14 memorials, 10 funerals, and many, many wakes to attend in the Maspeth house alone. Sometimes there were two a day.

    Skalkowski, 38, a former city paramedic from Copiague, remembers his first weeks at the firehouse as relentless activity and barely controlled chaos. On any given day he might bump into busloads of well-wishers from Pennsylvania, or a visiting Italian firefighter who spoke no English, or the "bread lady," a neighborhood woman who dropped off 10 fresh loaves every three days, or one of the wives, who would ask, was there any new word of her husband? Once, Skalkowski was called downstairs because a church group had just arrived unexpectedly from California to pray with them. He fumbled for a role in the house.

    Then one day, a call came in: the bodies of Rand, Gies and Lt. Ronald Kerwin had been found at the site. Skalkowski felt he did not deserve to carry one of the fallen out, but it was his shift. He took his place in the circle around Gies. When he finished, Carol Gies embraced him as if they had always been friends. He felt strange, then honored.

    Through the months, the faces changed quickly. HazMat firefighter Jack Hack was the first one to leave. The 60-year-old veteran affectionately known as "Reverend Jack" quietly put in his papers in November and has been scarcely heard from since.

    "It's so overwhelming," Hack said, bursting into tears, after picking up the phone at his Kings Park home. "It was the funerals. I couldn't go to any more funerals."

    Hack had always thought he'd be a regular visitor to his old house in retirement, but when he tried a trip to Maspeth a few weeks later, he was stopped short by the sight of the newly repainted rig.

    On it were 19 little clouds, each containing a name of a friend. The memories flooded back. Hack turned around and went home.

    Friends finally persuaded him to see a counselor, after he broke down while chatting in the parking lot of the beach at Sunken Meadow one summer day about God being taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance.

    After the rescue effort turned to recovery, the fire department began an urgent drive to refill its depleted companies, but found it harder than ever to find recruits for Maspeth.

    Three men who had been slated to join Squad 288 in January told Murphy they had changed their minds after talking to their wives.

    "They did the math," he said. "Whatever happens, no matter where it happens, those guys are going to be the first ones sent."

    But others were moved by a simple desire to help. Joseph Cultrera, 33, a former city paramedic and Marine, was one of half a dozen who joined Squad 288 on Christmas Eve. He'd heard talk they were thinking of shutting the company down, which hardly seemed to him like the right way to honor the memory of those who died.

    North Carolina native Phil Larrimore joined HazMat 1 out of gratitude.

    Larrimore, a probationary firefighter, had been visiting when the first plane hit and talked reluctant officers into letting him ride in. But Lt. John Crisci refused to let him follow them inside. So when the first tower collapsed, Larrimore was walking down West Street.

    Certain of his impending death as he lay face down on the floor of the World Financial Center, he says he saw a cross of light shining in the pitch darkness. A great peace came over him, and he felt reassured that he would wake up on the other side of the Jordan.

    Now, he feels he owes his life to Crisci and the Fire Department and is proud to repay the debt.

    "When someone wants to be a movie star, he moves to Hollywood. If he wants to be a country music star he goes to Nashville," Larrimore said. "I always wanted to be amongst the best of the best."

    Bart Fendelman, the son of a Scarsdale corporate attorney and an antiques appraiser, arrived in January. Normally, it takes about two years for a new member of HazMat to master its bewildering array of meters, chemicals and procedures, he said.

    But during Fendelman's first week, the men in the unit got called to the Queens courthouse, where a Legal Aid lawyer had found a film cannister filled with pink powder he thought might be anthrax. So they suited up, took the man's jacket and began tests. The substance was negative for radioactivity, negative for explosive potential and matched nothing in their library. They offered to trade the man's clothing for a Tyvek suit, but he asked for his jacket back instead.

    "We think it was fruit drink," Fendelman said.

    Some of the newcomers scoffed when then-Lt. Vincent Ungaro admonished them to show "respect" toward their new lockers, which had just been emptied by grieving families. But more than one veteran has taken over a friend's locker rather than see it go to a stranger.

    John Larocchia of HazMat had a radio comedy show with his buddy in the unit, Thomas Gardner. The two had been working on a proposal for a television sitcom about firemen. Now Larocchia, a stand-up comedian looking for a break, honors his friend's memory by sharing Gardner's locker and telling his jokes.

  5. #5
    Registered User SeaBreeze's Avatar
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    Ungaro, who since has been promoted and transferred, drew great comfort from a recent visit in a dream. Ronnie Gies, the stalwart teacher of engine work, was coming toward him down a hall. Delighted, Ungaro reached out for his old friend, but he could not touch him.

    "I gotta go, I gotta go," Gies told him, and walked on. Ungaro woke his wife to tell her the news. Gies hadn't looked depressed at all. "It was, 'hello,' it was like, 'I'm all right, don't worry about me,' " Ungaro said.

    But others haven't had such sweet dreams. There have been marriage problems, alcohol problems, nightmares, officers say. Some have taken medical leaves. The department circulated a video on the warning signs of post-traumatic stress for people to watch and sent light-duty firefighters and professional counselors to the firehouse. The men say they mostly fobbed them off with union banter.

    "They sent over a lady from some hospital, and then I kind of thought she was trying to get some information so she could write a book," said Robert Hunter, who saw the bodies fall that day. "I said to the psychiatrist, 'Can you erase any of the pictures in my mind?' They said, 'No, we can't do that.' I said, 'Then you can't help me.'"

    Rick Gimbl, senior man in HazMat before he retired June 28, started having problems, too.

    "I'm hyper all the time, sometimes I explode real quick, I can't sleep at night, I always wake up," he said. "Counseling is offered to you, they don't force it on you. I think maybe they should. You feel you want to explode inside and don't know why."

    But it was overtime, he says, that forced him out the door.

    Round the clock work at Ground Zero yielded a windfall of overtime checks for firefighters, and since pensions are calculated on the total pay from the last year worked, senior firefighters are reluctantly abandoning the job in droves.

    "There's no incentive for senior men to stay," he said. "The new guys come in to take their places and now it's time to think: You want this money for the rest of your life, or do you want to lose it? I was not ready to retire right now. I wanted to put a few more years in, especially with the new guys coming in."

    The department brought in 1,200 recruits this year, but it expects to lose 1,000 by the end of the year to retirements. Department officials say retirements have always come in waves, but this one is hitting at an unfortunate time.

    "Fifty percent of the job has less than five years," Gimbl said. "A lot of these people have never been down a dark hole, a major fire. The city don't care, I'm just a number, they can hire two guys for what I make."

    In Squad 288, Molle slipped getting out of the rig in January and blew out his knee for the last time. He retired in June. "It didn't feel the same anymore," he said. "We had worked so hard to get it where it was ... you don't feel like working for that again."

    The changes have come home hard to Janice Waters, widow of Capt. Patrick J. Waters, who lives near the firehouse and has visited once a week ever since the attack to exchange information and comfort with the men. She has known fewer each time she's come, it seems. A few weeks ago, the man doing house watch gave her a blank look when she told him her name. She had to wait by the door until he could call the captain down to vouch for her.

    "I felt horrible," she said.

    Others have had happier experiences. Skalkowski hit it off with Kerwin's 5-year-old son during a firehouse visit last spring and brought him back to ride engines for the day. Enzmann played all day with a cute kid at the company picnic this year, learning at the end of the day he was Ielpi's boy.

    And the house is beginning, tentatively, to revive pre-9/11 traditions: kitchen-table oratory about the long-running wage dispute with the city, shoving matches over who gets to wash the dishes, kidding about someone's piddly fire.

    Charlie Hendry, who came in December well seasoned from a decade as a Hempstead volunteer, talked everyone into letting him put a super-loud, suburban-style siren on the rig, which he hopes will help the squad cut through traffic faster.

    When summer came, he also tossed a few buckets of water out of the firehouse's big front windows, the ones that look toward the empty space in the sky. He had heard the stories about the lost men of this house. It sounded as if they'd had a lot of fun.

    Some senior men greeted those hijinks with a roll of the eyes, but others saw them as an encouraging sign of life returning to the firehouse.

    Still, Hendry is nagged by worries that he might have given offense. Has anyone complained about him, he wants to know?

    "We were clowning around, we wanted everyone to have fun, but some guys might have took it the wrong way so we stopped," he said. "Maybe for some of those people, that's stuff those guys used to do, and it hits home with them there."

    Fallen Firefighters

    The men lost Sept. 11 who were af-filiated

    with Hazardous Materials 1

    and Squad 288:

    Chief John Jack Fanning,

    HazMat Operations

    Capt. Patrick J. Waters, HazMat

    Capt. Thomas Moody, HazMat

    Lt. John Crisci, HazMat

    Firefighter Thomas Gardner,


    Firefighter Kevin Smith, HazMat

    Firefighter Jonathan R. Hohmann,


    Firefighter John Giordano, (de-tailed

    to HazMat)

    Firefighter Dennis Carey, HazMat

    Firefighter Dennis Scauso,


    Firefighter Martin N. DeMeo,


    Lt. Ronald Kerwin, 288

    Firefighter Joseph Hunter, 288

    Firefighter Timothy Welty, 288

    Firefighter Ronnie Gies, 288

    Firefighter Jonathan Ielpi, 288

    Firefighter Peter Brennan, 288

    Firefighter Brian Sweeney, 288

    Firefighter Adam Rand, 288


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