FDNY member Thomas F. O’Brien died 82 years ago after responding to a fire in Manhattan. But unlike other decorated city firefighters, O’Brien’s demise was not classified a “line of duty” death, and his name is not on the department’s memorial wall.
Now, family members — including grandchildren living on Long Island, in New Jersey and in California — are asking for a death reclassification so his name can be next to others who made the ultimate sacrifice.
The wall, at FDNY headquarters in MetroTech, Brooklyn, has 1,147 names going as far back as 1865.
“I don’t want money. I don’t expect money,” said grandson Art O’Brien, 75, of New Jersey, in a telephone interview. Instead, O’Brien wants his grandfather, who had been decorated throughout his career, to be honored by the department he loved.
To help with the complicated task, the family has enlisted Edward McCarty III, a former Nassau County assistant district attorney and Nassau County surrogate with a law practice in Lake Success.
“It was so compelling,” McCarty said of the story Art O’Brien told him in June when he decided to take on the case — for free. “After I saw the equities in this and what the O’Brien family had suffered.”
As far back as August 2012, the FDNY, in response to a Freedom of Information request by Art O’Brien, said it couldn’t find any records about the fire or any decision about Thomas O’Brien’s death. When asked in July by Newsday if any decision and supporting materials on the O’Brien case could be found, an FDNY spokesman said, “We are not aware of or in possession of any document like you have described.”
But McCarty’s investigation uncovered an autopsy report by the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office from 1935. It stated that O’Brien, a resident of Richmond Hill, Queens, had died of a fractured skull and brain injuries suffered in the Oct. 27, 1935, fire at 349 West 26th St. in Manhattan, apparently when he was struck on the head by falling debris.
When McCarty asked the FDNY earlier this year to add O’Brien’s name to the memorial wall based on the autopsy finding, the department balked.
The letter by Alison J. Chen, deputy director of the FDNY legal bureau, said there didn’t appear to be any new information that “would not have been considered in 1935.” Chen also said the autopsy report and death notice all existed in 1935.
After talking with department historians, she found that the FDNY made “line of duty death” determinations when “circumstances warranted it,” Chen explained. The current commissioner, Chen added, won’t overturn a decision by a prior commissioner.
McCarty said it appears O’Brien felt ill after returning to the Engine Company 3 firehouse at 4:20 p.m. To “self medicate” as a way of relieving head pain, he drank whiskey on an empty stomach and then went to bed there, McCarty said.
O’Brien, 48, was found dead in the firehouse the next day, on Oct. 28 at 7:16 a.m., McCarty said.
The autopsy found a fractured rear skull with a 6-inch-long break, with some blood clotting on the brain. The injury was “incurred at the fire” but it was unclear how, the autopsy stated.
The autopsy also revealed O’Brien had ingested high levels of alcohol, but former New York City medical examiner Michael Baden — in an interview with Newsday recently — said that probably would not have killed him.
McCarty says he still believes FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro should be willing to review any prior decisions when new evidence comes to light.
McCarty said he is prepared to take legal action to compel the FDNY to give the case a second look.
Betty Seibold, Art O’Brien’s half-sister, who lives in Massapequa Park, said the family is committed to the case. “They felt it was really an injustice that he wasn’t honored because they felt he died because of the fire,” Seibold said of her grandfather.