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Carlos M. Rivera, 1st Hispanic FDNY commissioner, dies at 87

Carlos M. Rivera, the FDNY's first Hispanic commissioner,

Carlos M. Rivera, the FDNY's first Hispanic commissioner, died Monday at the age of 87.   Credit: Newsday/Alan Raia

Carlos M. Rivera, who became New York City’s first Hispanic FDNY commissioner in its 127-year history, led the department during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and presided over department cuts when the city faced fiscal troubles, has died. He was 87.

Born in Spanish Harlem and raised in the Bronx, Rivera moved to Long Island after joining the FDNY. He died of natural causes Monday at his home in Babylon, according to his wife, Maria Vidal-Rivera, a retired FDNY secretary.

While on the job, Rivera, known as Charlie, was awarded two citations for bravery and one for administrative excellence, according to published reports. He had risen through the ranks and worked in every borough for the FDNY, the nation’s largest fire department.

"Carlos Rivera bravely served our city for 35 years, including leading the Department during the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993," according to a statement from FDNY Commissioner Dan Nigro.

Rivera joined the FDNY in 1958 as a firefighter, according to The New York Times. He served as a lieutenant in 1964, a captain in 1970, a battalion chief in 1976, deputy chief in 1980, deputy assistant chief in 1981 and assistant chief in 1983. The next year, he became Staten Island’s borough commander and supervised its first full-time rescue company, and later served as chief of operations. At 56, Rivera was named commissioner by then-Mayor David Dinkins.

"He was so proud that he went through the ranks, all the way up," his wife said Wednesday.

The year Rivera became fire commissioner, in 1990, he told Newsday: "My goal from the very beginning was to increase the morale of the firefighters."

But that goal clashed with budgetary woes, as Rivera’s FDNY fought with the firefighters' union over the number of firefighters responding to alarms, which neighborhoods needed firehouses and coped with a mayoral-ordered hiring freeze as well as other cost-cutting measures.

Rivera voiced displeasure with the cuts, but, Dinkins said at the time, the commissioner was successful in most budget fights and the fire department fared better than other municipal agencies.

After nearly three years with Rivera as Dinkins’ fire commissioner, the two had a falling out. Dinkins gave him a lukewarm valediction, telling reporters he was "not displeased with his performance." That presaged a bitter split, in which Rivera defected to support Dinkins’ rival for the mayoralty — Rudy Giuliani — who would go on to beat Dinkins.

Dinkins called Rivera a "troubled" man whose "behavior is bizarre."

"I wouldn’t characterize him as a traitor," Dinkins said, adding: "Whatever his personal problems are, I hope he is able to work them out."

Rivera in turn accused Dinkins’ administration of harboring anti-Hispanic bias — an allegation denied by aides to the city’s first Black mayor.

In resigning, Rivera said: "What I am doing here is trying to do the right thing by my firefighters, who are very important. I am a career firefighter. I cannot compromise, continue to compromise my principles, what I have lived for 34 years, and continue to destroy this department."

Carlos Manuel Rivera was born in Manhattan on Sept. 7, 1933, the middle child of Juan Rivera and the former Petra Crespi, who owned a bodega in the Bronx. He was raised in the city and graduated from Morris High School in the Bronx.

Rivera enlisted in the U.S. Navy after graduating and served for about four years during the Korean War, said his daughter, Patricia Moore of Babylon. He worked at his parents’ bodega and later delivered soda driving a truck for the distributor White Rock, she said. Once he had joined the FDNY, he moved to Long Island to buy a home, in Commack, to raise his children.

He joined the FDNY in 1958 and retired in 1993. He served in the top post for three years.

When his children were grown, he and his wife moved to Babylon. He also had a condo in Bayside, Queens, to fulfill the city mandate that top agency personnel reside in the five boroughs, Moore said.

In addition to his wife and Moore, Rivera is survived by daughter Denise Harvey of Beverly Hills, California; son James Rivera of Columbus, South Carolina, and two grandchildren. Rivera’s first wife, Joan, and his sister, Gladys Negron, and brother, John Anthony Rivera, predeceased him.

A Sunday churchgoer at St Joseph Catholic Church in Babylon, Rivera is scheduled to be memorialized Friday at a funeral at Our Lady of Grace Roman Catholic Church in West Babylon, with burial to follow at St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale. He’ll be honored with fire department honors, Moore said.

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