Commentary

Justice Must Be Done: Firefighter Wrongly Denied Service Recognition

By ARTHUR O’BRIEN | Oct 04, 2017
Courtesy of: Arthur O’Brien The author’s grandfather poses in uniform early in his FDNY career.

A few years after I retired, I was searching online to view the New York Fire Department’s Memorial Wall. I fully expected to see my grandfather’s name listed, as I was always told he, my paternal grandfather firefighter Thomas F. O’Brien, had died after sustaining an injury in a fire. After further research and inquiries, I learned that the FDNY had not recognized my grandfather’s death as in the line of duty and would not consider deeming it so until further information was provided.

I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FDNY in hopes of obtaining facts relating to the fire, the injury and/or an internal investigative report into the death. The FDNY responded that it did not have any information concerning the matter.

Undeterred, I obtained a copy of the autopsy report, which confirmed that the death was a direct result of a head injury sustained at a fire. This additional information, which the FDNY first deputy commissioner admits they did not have, was not enough to sway the FDNY administration to reverse an almost eight-decade-old decision.

I’ve told this following story countless times over the years to many sympathetic ears. One such person was Judge Edward W. McCarty III. He and I had served in the Army Reserves together. He also served as a homicide prosecutor, a New York State Surrogate Court justice, a law professor and a diplomat. McCarty was so moved by the injustice to my grandfather and my family that he undertook the case to seek a LOD (line of duty) status for my grandfather without a fee.

My grandfather was born to Irish immigrants in 1887 and joined the FDNY in 1917. When his wife died in 1927, he continued raising his six children in Richmond Hill while serving with Engine Co. 3 on the lower west side of Manhattan.

He fought a two-alarm fire one day at 1:36 p.m. and upon returning to the firehouse at 4:36 p.m., he complained of feeling faint. Instead of calling an ambulance or a doctor, my grandfather was told to go to bed. He was discovered dead in his bunk the next morning at 7:16 by a fellow firefighter.

According to an Oct. 28, 1935 report by the New York City’s medical examiner (case number 5643), his stomach held one pint of brownish content. His blood alcohol level was 3+ (high). He had a skull fracture 6 inches in length, a subarachnoid hematoma and subarachnoid hemorrhage, a front temporal lobe laceration about 2 inches long, and a blood clot attached to underside of both frontal lobes and right temporal lobe. The cause of death was a fractured skull with lacerations of the brain. The report stated, “Injury incurred at a fire on October 27, 1935, in some unknown manner.”

A detailed investigative report was compiled by Judge McCarty. To ensure accuracy and complete objectivity, McCarty called upon many of his professional and personal contacts including medical examiners, pathologists, ER doctors, private investigators, former FDNY chiefs and investigative reporters. The contributors agree that my grandfather’s injuries were so serious that it caused his death within about six hours after the fire. His blood alcohol level was high and it can be expected that he was drinking to self-medicate in order to lessen the pain of his mortal injury. 

My grandfather had been a widower for six years at the time of his death. When his wife died, the oldest child, my father, Thomas J. O’Brien, was 14 years old. It was necessary for him to leave school to take care of his younger siblings while his father reported to duty at the firehouse for three-day shifts. After my grandfather’s death, the family was poor and felt overwhelmed. They had pressing issues to deal with such as childcare, food and rent. Nobody thought of fighting the FDNY decision to withhold the line of duty status. They did not know enough to push back on the FDNY.

My father started work as a government messenger while his five younger siblings were sent to the Mount Loretto Orphanage on Staten Island. When World War II broke out, my father and two of his brothers were drafted and sent to fight in Europe. One daughter married a soldier while her brothers were away. She followed her husband to California and from there to Fort Lewis, Washington state. The fourth brother also served in the Army, but it was after the war had ended.

All six children led productive lives. My father followed in his father’s footsteps and became a volunteer fireman in his hometown for over 35 years and held the ranks of fireman, lieutenant and captain.

Since the FDNY has shown zero interest in meeting with my attorney or me, I’ve told Judge McCarty to file an Article 78 claim. This should move the case out of the FDNY and into a courtroom where my lawyer and the NYC Office of the Corporation Counsel can present to a judge. No past-due financial funds have been requested, and the only relief sought is to add my grandfather’s name to the 1,159 FDNY bravest who died in the line of duty while serving.

There has been some interest in our plight by Newsday and CBS radio in NYC. Newsday published a story about the FDNY decision and my family’s attempts to obtain a change. The writer contacted Michael Baden, a world-renowned pathologist, for his opinion regarding the autopsy findings. Is the reason the FDNY denied the LOD status because the blood alcohol at the time of my grandfather’s death was high? Baden confirmed our position that my grandfather did not die from alcohol consumption.

The FDNY continues to maintain it will not overturn a decision made over 80 years ago, in spite of the fact the FDNY commissioner in 1935 was later relieved of his duties by Mayor LaGuardia.

I again want to stress that this is not a money issue. I do not want or expect a financial settlement. To prove that point, I am suing for $1. My lawyer said $1 would make it easier for the corporation counsel and the judge to award the LOD status. I hope a judge will examine the facts surrounding my grandfather’s death and the repercussions of FDNY actions, splitting up a family and sending my aunts and uncles to an orphanage. Judge McCarty has assured me justice will be attained.

Those interested in supporting the efforts to add Firefighter O’Brien’s name to the FDNY memorial wall can email me at addtoFDNYwall@gmail.com.

Arthur O’Brien lives in the Dunes.

 

 

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