Single Firefighters' Families Object After Fund Excludes Them From Aid


A bitter dispute has erupted over the decision by a firefighters' union to exclude the families of single firefighters who died on Sept. 11 from receiving any of the roughly $60 million collected through its Widows' and Children's Fund.

Officials from the union, the Uniformed Firefighters Association, said they had no choice because the fund's bylaws clearly state that all donations are to go to the widows, children and dependents of firefighters who died in the line of duty. They note that families of single firefighters have already received $418,000 each from a separate fund.

But the families of the 97 unmarried firemen who died that day said the union had advertised that donations to the Widows' and Children's Fund would go to the families of all 343 firefighters who died after the attack on the World Trade Center.

"I feel like my own union and my own friends have stabbed me in the back," said Battalion Chief James J. Riches, whose son James died in the attack.

Vincent Ragusa, whose son Michael was assigned to Engine Company 279 and died in the attack, said, "I can't understand the logic that excludes 97 families of firefighters from receiving donations intended for all of the firefighters."

His wife, Domenica, is incensed. "My son is just as dead as a married man who is dead," she said. "To me, this devalues one group of heroes. It is hurtful."

Thomas LaMacchia, the union's treasurer, denied that the union's stance was divisive. "We had a meeting yesterday, and everyone was very supportive of what the board is doing," he said.

Mr. LaMacchia said the union was trying to treat everyone equally. "We certainly don't think there are two types of heroes," he said.

He noted that the union, together with the International Association of Fire Fighters and the officers' union, had divided the money in the New York Firefighters 9/11 Disaster Relief Fund equally among the families of all 343 firefighters killed in the attack. "Each family got $418,000 from the 9/11 fund, so they're hardly in a position to say we ignored them," he said. "The family of a single firefighter got the same amount of money as a widow with five children."

The Widows' and Children's Fund is prohibited from following suit, Mr. LaMacchia said, because its bylaws state that its purpose is "to accept donations to be used the relieve the need of the widows, children and dependents of the members of the UFA (Uniformed Firefighters Association) who died or shall die in active service."

The union's own Web site makes no such distinction, however. "The funds are deposited directly into the Widows' and Children's Fund account and distributed to the families of our fallen firefighters," the page reads. Nor does its latest tax filing, which states, "The fund collects donations on behalf of members who died in line-of-duty circumstances and provides their dependents with certain scholarships."

"They kept advertising all over that these donations were for 343 families," said Thomas Hannon, whose son, Dana, died at the World Trade Center. "They have to do what the donors intended. That's the law."

Michael Block, the union's general counsel, said he was unfamiliar with the tax papers and had not seen the Web site. "We'll have to change it," he said.

The firefighters' union is not the first organization to get tripped up in its own language over Sept. 11. The American Red Cross decided to disburse all of the money it collected for Sept. 11 after donors decried its plans to reserve a portion to finance a response to the next tragedy. That is standard practice among disaster relief organizations, but donors complained that the Red Cross had not done enough to tell them about it.

The firefighters' union did make exceptions to its bylaws in at least two cases. Chief Riches and the other families of single firefighters received checks from the Widows' and Children's Fund for their portion of the $1.6 million raised by the Philadelphia Police and Fire Departments and the $2.3 million raised by the Central Florida Fire Chiefs' Association and WFTV Channel 9 News in Orlando. Mr. LaMacchia said the fund had made an exception in those cases at the request of the donors.

The single firefighters' families say that they were dependent on their sons, even if not for their livelihoods.

"How do they know that we didn't depend on him, that we didn't have plans to buy property with him or a house or a boat? How do they know that?" asked Sally Regenhard, who lost her son, Christian, a probationary firefighter. "I have not been able to work a day since Sept. 11. I have been devastated and destroyed by my son's death. Does that make me not dependent on him?"