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De Blasio choice for FDNY pledges diversity

New Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro speaks at a

New Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro speaks at a press conference announcing his appointment at the FDNY training facility on Randall's Island on May 9, 2014. Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

Mayor Bill de Blasio Friday named retired FDNY veteran Daniel A. Nigro, a hero of 9/11, as fire commissioner, and the department's onetime top uniformed officer vowed to diversify the overwhelmingly white department.

Nigro, 65, is a former chief of department who helped rebuild the FDNY after the devastating loss of 343 personnel in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Nigro retired in 2002, after 32 years on the job, and is on a disability pension from respiratory illness suffered in the aftermath of the Twin Towers collapse.

He became chief of department on Sept. 11, 2001, when the holder of that rank, Peter Ganci, was killed by falling debris. The men had responded to the scene together. Nigro took charge to lead the rescue and recovery.

Nigro was on the verge of tears Friday as Ganci's son Chris recalled his father's deep friendship with Nigro.

"I know for sure that today, he'd be beaming with pride to see you achieve this monumental achievement," said Ganci, now an FDNY lieutenant.

Nigro's 93-year-old father, also named Daniel, who attended the announcement at the FDNY Academy on Randalls Island, had been a firefighter too.

"Before any of the members here think that it's going to be easy, with a kindly old uncle at the helm, remember that no one expects more of you than your family," the new commissioner said to his FDNY brethren.

Earlier this year, de Blasio agreed to pay up to $98 million in back pay and benefits to settle a long-running lawsuit that charged the FDNY's entrance tests discriminated against minority applicants. The city agreed to meet certain diversity goals and to appoint top-level diversity personnel.

Nigro said he would move swiftly to bring more diversity to the department, which is more than 90 percent white.

"We must no longer wait for the judge's ruling to tell us what fairness means," Nigro said. John Coombs, president of the Vulcan Society, a fraternal organization of black firefighters, said he knows Nigro and is "optimistic" that the department will obey the court decrees to diversify.

"Chief Nigro is well respected because he's approachable -- well, I should say Commissioner now, right?"

De Blasio, asked why he rebuffed the effort of the current commissioner, Salvatore Cassano, to stay on the job, said, "My broad approach to the appointments process has been to bring in new leaders, with very few exceptions."

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