Broken hero

His tragic trip from Ground Zero to welfare

BY MICHAEL McAULIFF
DAILY NEWS WASHINGTON BUREAU



Ailing former firefighter Frederick (Rick) Fowler didn't go to Ground Zero on Sept. 11 to remember how he survived the collapse of the north tower, diving under a fire truck five years ago.
He went to the welfare office.

He avoided memorials because it was too painful to remember the loss of his six firehouse brothers from Brooklyn's Ladder Co. 118, including his cousin, Vernon Cherry, and his best friend, Leon Smith.

But more recently, he lost his meager benefits. They were cut after he missed a required appointment while he was in Manhattan's VA hospital for two weeks after contemplating suicide. "I felt like throwing myself out a window," said Fowler, an Air Force veteran. "I checked myself in."

Fowler defies the stereotypical portrait of the city's Bravest in the wake of 9/11. He admits that he cracked. He couldn't go to the funerals anymore. Then he couldn't even go to the fires.

And his firehouse pals and the Fire Department had a hard time accepting that one of their own couldn't take it.

So, on the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, the 46-year-old went to the Department of Social Services on Pacific St. "I thought about going to Ground Zero," he said that morning. "But I don't know how that would go, so I'm getting ready to go to Social Services and see about my welfare. I get $68.50 every two weeks."

How Fowler - the proud son of a fire captain and a 13-year department veteran - wound up pleading for welfare on the anniversary of the FDNY's most heartbreaking and heroic day is a painful tale. It shows starkly how an inhuman act damaged a man and the organization he loved, and how even a hero can slip through the cracks.

"I never imagined this," said Fowler, who now takes nine medications for posttraumatic stress, nightmares, anger and the scarring in his lungs.

He still remembers the joy of the job and the times he spent with Smith, the friend he was a deejay with as "Rick and Slick," and Cherry, an FDNY legend who was Fowler's second father in the firehouse. He can still summon a smile thinking of the times his real father, also Fred Fowler, worked shifts at 118 and Rick drove, his dad at his side.

"Capt. Fowler and firefighter Fowler, sitting in the front of the cab together - that's something I'll always remember," he said.

The night before Sept. 11, Fowler requested overtime. He would have worked with Smith and Cherry. And he would have died on Ladder 118's last ride from Brooklyn. But he got a morning tour, and the rig had already left for Ground Zero when he showed up for work.

He drove to the disaster in a car. The south tower had already collapsed. When the north tower fell, he dove under Engine 205 as heated dust and debris blotted out light, sound and air. He thought he was dead.

When he crawled out into the devastation, he realized his cousin and best friend were gone. He says he thought he should have died with them.

He spent four days working at Ground Zero. When friends and family saw him again, it was clear to them he was not okay.

"He'd lost a cousin and a best friend and he was having a hard time with that," said Michael Barber, a cousin who went to Cherry's funeral with Fowler.

Craig Katz, a psychiatrist at the Mount Sinai Medical Center, said classic symptoms of posttraumatic stress are irritability and pushing people away. "That disconnect people with PTSD experience can cause major problems in their life," he said.

Fowler fit the pattern, isolating himself from colleagues as they united, and going to the funerals of people he loved by himself or sometimes with relatives. He eventually stopped going altogether.

Smith's mother, Irene, says that drove a wedge between Fowler and the men in his firehouse.

"They felt that he should have felt like them, but everyone handles grief differently," she said. " Sept. 11 changed people, and I hope now they look back to the person Rick was before. They're good guys, but so is Rick."

It wasn't just funerals that bothered Fowler. The veteran firefighter says he froze at a routine alarm in Brooklyn Heights in October 2001. "My brothers couldn't rely on me," he said.

He went for counseling in the department's facility in lower Manhattan. He could still see and smell the smoke rising from The Pile. He fought with his bosses, and took a year-long leave of absence, leaving the country for uCanada.

When he came back, he said, nothing was better. He continued to fight with superiors.

"They didn't understand that I needed help," Fowler said. "Firemen are supposed to be big, tough and strong, but I lost it."

Ultimately, he decided to resign.

His father, Fred Fowler, said he told his son that would be a mistake, that he should retire early or find some way to keep ties to the FDNY. But the younger man says he just needed to get away.

He came back to Brooklyn last February after his father told him Gov. Pataki had signed a bill to grant 9/11's emergency responders disability pensions if they are sick.

But Fowler's claim was denied. A department spokesman said Fowler's resignation severed all claims on his old employer.

He was sent to another city agency. It turned out to be the Department of Social Services. And welfare.

Frederick (Rick) Fowler, ex-firefighter with Brooklyn's Ladder 118, suffered posttraumatic stress after 9/11.