Fireman ready for next step
BY NANCY DILLON
NY DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Monday, March 7th, 2005
As scorching flames rushed him like a “locomotive” and shot 3-foot spears over his head, Firefighter Joseph DiBernardo took a five-story leap of faith. “I remember free-falling and thinking, ‘How long is this going to take? Am I going to land on a fence?'” he told the Daily News yesterday from his hospital room at Weill Cornell Medical Center. “When I finally hit the snow, it felt like everything from my waist down just shattered – like a bag of broken glass.”
DiBernardo, 34, recalled his harrowing experience in his first in-depth interview since the Jan. 23 Black Sunday Bronx inferno that claimed two fellow Bravest. The Rescue 3 firefighter said he’s grateful to be preparing for his release Wednesday to the St. Johnland rehabilitation center in Kings Park, L.I. Forty pounds lighter and patched up with 10 plates and 60 screws, DiBernardo vowed yesterday to walk again in time to dance at his sister Carolyn’s wedding Sept. 9. “My goal is to walk down that aisle with my mom and dance with Carolyn,” he said, two soft black casts cushioning his reconstructed ankles. “I have more metal in me than a Saturn. … But I’ll be ready.” DiBernardo said he’s also grateful his buddy, Firefighter Jeffrey Cool, carried a personal safety rope with him that fateful morning. After the tragic fire, the FDNY said it would resume issuing ropes to firefighters. “If Jeff didn’t have that rope, Jeff and I would be dead today,” he said, explaining he first held the 10-foot rope for Cool and then wrapped it around himself before rolling out the window of the burning 178th St. building.
“That fire was like a locomotive coming down the hallway,” he said. “It was time to go or stay there and burn to death.” He remembered hearing that Lt. Curtis Meyran and Firefighter John Bellew weren’t breathing following the plunge, so he waited while his fellow Bravest tried to help them first. “I told them not to move me,” he said. “It felt like hours, but it was probably just minutes.” He said he thought for sure he was paralyzed: “I didn’t even feel the cold. All I felt was the pain in my legs.” DiBernardo underwent 11 hours of surgery on his right leg, nine hours on his left and needed a breathing tube for 18 days after suffering respiratory failure and an infection. Family and friends kept a round-the-clock bedside vigil for the bachelor from Miller Place, L.I.
“It’s been a long road, but everybody has been so supportive,” said his mother, Barbara DiBernardo of Stony Brook, L.I. “There were times when my husband and I discussed the possibility [he might not make it]. But we had faith.” DiBernardo is the last of the four injured firefighters to leave the hospital for rehab. Cool, 37, and Eugene Stolowski, 33, were both released last month. Brendan Cawley, 31, was released Jan. 29.
Bellew, 37, of Ladder Co. 27, and Meyran, 46, of Battalion 26, never made it home to their families. Hours after their deaths, Firefighter Richard Sclafani was killed in a Brooklyn blaze, making it the FDNY’s deadliest day since 9/11. “I’m not a hero. They’re the real heroes,” DiBernardo said yesterday of his fallen brethren. The son of a retired FDNY chief said he has “mixed emotions” about the prospect of returning to work. “Part of me can consider retiring, but the other part wants to get back on that fire floor as soon as possible,” he said. “I’m just taking it one day at a time right now.”