Blunt Trauma

Firefighters for whom 9-11 never ends

In the FDNY family, the perfect unity of grieving has cracked with time and the stresses of altered lives. There is resentment over money, over who was compensated for comp time and who wasn't, who got promotions and who missed out, who took free trips and received media attention and who didn't. When Battalion Chief Richard Picciotto wrote a book a couple years ago about his experiences on 9-11, his FDNY brothers beat him up in the papers for hogging the spotlight.

Some of those hit by 9-11 blame then mayor Rudy Giuliani's management or Motorola's radios, or even the decisions by fire officers who commanded the response, for some of the deaths. At one post–9-11 FDNY function, one chief said another had been a "coward" on that fateful day—the ultimate insult, which is why one of the participants in that exchange refuses to name names.

Some firefighters feel they were forced to retire, like Captain Al Fuentes. Severely injured on 9-11, he still feels he was pushed out of his job. "I didn't retire. They retired me," he insists. "My intention was to stay there forever." Meanwhile, some of the bereaved feel frustrated that the fire depart- ment and its unions have moved on without them. At a February meeting of firefighter families who sued over radio failures that day, Jimmy Boyle, who lost his son Michael, told other grieving kin that the reason their case isn't getting a lot of sympathy in the department is that "there is the impression that the families are after two bites of the apple," meaning they want the federal money and a legal settlement—"and that's in the firehouses too."

Retired Lieutenant Joe McMahon, with daughter Madison, was a fire marshal on 9-11 and sorted human remains for  nine months.
photo: Fiona Aboud
Retired Lieutenant Joe McMahon, with daughter Madison, was a fire marshal on 9-11 and sorted human remains for nine months.

Details

The cloak of heroism that has been thrown over all the action on 9-11 irks many as well, especially the assumption by public officials that firefighters knowingly continued up the stairs in a building they'd been told to evacuate. "They just kept climbing," scoffs Rose Aileen Tallon, who lost her brother, "like a bunch of idiots." Suspicions abound—within the ranks—that some guys inhaled aerosol propellant to get out on a lung disability, although no one disputes that many firefighters have legitimately suffered lung damage. Resentment persists over the city's order late in 2001 that firefighters abandon the Pile. "The bastards arrested a dozen brothers," reads a recent comment on the FDNY Rant website. "We had to fight to carry home our dead."

And for some in the FDNY clan, the doubts go to the very heart of 9-11 mythology: the notion that the firefighters who died saved tens of thousands of lives.



Hours spent toiling at ground zero took their toll on Frank Bazzicalupo's lungs and career.
photo: Fiona Aboud
Since 1981 the FDNY has had an office dedicated to preventing and investigating accidents during fire operations. The Safety Battalion sends one of its chiefs to every fire that registers a second alarm or greater—as well as to tricky emergencies like hazardous- material incidents or building collapses. When an FDNY member is killed on the job, the Safety Battalion investigates to see if faulty equipment, bad decisions, or flawed policies were to blame.

That's what put Mike Telesca in Staten Island the last day he was on duty before 9-11. In late August, a 27-year-old rookie firefighter died of a heart attack at a fire scene, and Telesca was looking into it. On the way to the wake, Telesca and aide Bobby Crawford stopped by Rescue 5 to interview men who'd worked at the fire where the rookie died. Crawford had been an aide at the battalion since its inception. For Chief Telesca, Safety—where he'd been for about 30 months—was the latest stop in a career that had begun on a lark. He left Morris Park in the Bronx to study arboriculture, and he later joined a tree company out on Long Island. But in 1977 a co-worker named Mike Warchola became a firefighter and egged on others to take the entrance exam. Eighteen months later Telesca was in a firehouse in Washington Heights. From there to later postings in the Bronx, Telesca developed a reputation for being a little prickly and a stickler for detail. He was a "controversial guy," as others put it. But he loved the job, and at his Safety post, he missed the fraternity of the firehouse. That night in Staten Island, he was back in it, smoking a stogie, shooting the shit with the boys. By the end of Telesca's next day on duty, just about everyone else in the room would be dead.


Telesca had Tuesday the 11th off but decided to go in anyway so he could wrap up the report on the dead rookie and get a blood test. It was one year to the day since Telesca had reached into the glove compartment of an FDNY sedan and got stuck with a needle. Some firefighter evidently had diabetes but was keeping it quiet, and when Telesca figured out who it was, he kept mum too. But for a year Telesca had been taking precautions, and while nothing had shown up in his blood, he wanted to keep up the monitoring. So he left early from his family's house in Eastchester for Safety's headquarters at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It wasn't quite the old firehouse, but the Safety office offered its own camaraderie. That morning, the chiefs and aides who were going off or coming on duty had coffee together. Crawford brought in some corn muffins and gave Telesca a shoulder massage amid the chatter. Then Telesca went into his office. It was just before 9 a.m.

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