John “Jackie” Sullivan’s 30-plus years with the New York City Fire Department are filled with memories he will never forget, and tragedies he can’t.
“Thirty years is a lot of time to put in if you’re in the streets for your whole career,” Sullivan said. “You see a lot of stuff that people read about in the paper and they go, ‘Oh, that’s horrible.’ I kind of went to work every day and dealt with horrible.”
Sullivan, an EMS deputy chief, will officially retire from the department in December. He joined in 1986 after serving 12 years in the United States Navy, reaching the rank of second class petty officer. After the military, Sullivan said he was looking for a job without monotony, and he certainly found it.
Many times, Sullivan recalled, his day, and his life, would change in just a matter of minutes.
“It’s not one of those jobs you go to and know what you’re going to be doing,” Sullivan said. “It was a job that had a lot of action to it. It was exciting.”
A 25-year Yorktown resident, Sullivan rose through the fire department ranks as a lieutenant, captain and eventually deputy chief.
Two years ago, Sullivan was honored with the department’s Ulysses S. Grant Leadership Medal. He received the award for his leadership in responding to a train derailment in Jackson Heights and for his role in successfully transporting New York City’s only Ebola patient.
In the fall of 2014, Sullivan remembers there being a craze around the Ebola virus and, as a result, the department received many false reports, several of which Sullivan and his crew responded to. Though the patients he transported did not have the virus, Sullivan said it was a good learning experience because his crew treated the patients as if they did.
That’s one of the reasons Sullivan believes he was chosen for the “real deal” on Oct. 23, 2014, when Dr. Craig Spencer, who had recently returned from treating Ebola patients in Guinea, Africa, told first responders he had contracted the virus.
“I got a phone call telling me to respond to this address up on 147th Street,” Sullivan said. “When I responded there, my phone was blowing up from doctors telling me, ‘This guy is real. He was [in Africa]. He knows he’s got it, and we’ve got to get him out of there.’”
Sullivan said the department was under intense pressure to handle the case without incident. Three weeks earlier, a Liberian national visiting friends and family in Dallas, Texas, had developed the virus. The man died and two nurses who treated the man were also infected, but ultimately survived.
On the scene, his crew ran into “obstacle after obstacle,” including being unable to enter the patient’s apartment building. Spencer offered to throw his keys down, but first responders were warned against touching anything he had touched. Police officers also refused to break down the lobby door.
Eventually, the fire department forced the lobby doors open, but there was still the issue of getting to the floor of Spencer’s apartment. When they tried buzzing his apartment, it became clear the doorbell system was not working.
A few minutes later, a woman who lived in the building granted the men access to Spencer’s apartment floor. Ten minutes later, Spencer was taken out of the building and put in an ambulance en route to Bellevue Hospital.
“We were putting him in the ambulance and people were yelling at us across the street, ‘What does he have? We want to know what he has. You’ve got to tell us what’s wrong with him,’” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said the transport was “flawless” and that nobody was exposed to the virus. Spencer was treated and released from the hospital several weeks later. For his efforts, Sullivan and his team received personal commendations from Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“It really worked out well,” Sullivan said. “I think it made the New York City Fire Department and the city of New York pretty proud.”
Still, he said, it didn’t stop the hysteria. Despite media inquiries, the city protected the names of first responders who transported Spencer. Sullivan kept quiet about the incident because he didn’t want to alarm neighbors or invite media coverage into his hometown.
“That’s why I didn’t say anything to anyone for a while,” Sullivan said. “I was afraid.”
Sullivan also recalls responding to the two terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. When the 1993 bombing occurred that killed six civilians, Sullivan and his partner were a half-mile away at a hospital.
“We pulled up behind a Port Authority police car and I remember an office chair coming out of the window and landing on top of the police car because at the time people were panicking, they didn’t know what to do,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan remained on the scene throughout the day, transporting five people to area hospitals. With power out in the building, the fire department still managed to clear every floor of the 104-story tower.
Nothing, however, could prepare Sullivan for his experience at the same buildings eight years later. Sullivan said he was training at Fort Totten in Queens on Sept. 11, 2001, when the first plane hit the North Tower at 8:46 a.m.
For the next 90 to 100 days, Sullivan worked out of one of the morgues dedicated to the deadliest terrorist attack in United States history.
“There was so much destruction,” Sullivan said. “We were finding remains in the Winter Garden [Atrium], we were finding remains at 90 West St.—we were finding stuff everywhere. We would put the remains in a bodybag, we would say a prayer, we would go back to the morgue, and then the [medical examiner] would catalog what it was.”
Just three weeks ago, the 1,641st victim of the World Trade Center attacks was identified. Sullivan said this is because the fire department was instructed to collect anything that resembled human remains, no matter how small.
“We still preserved it, we still bagged it, we still took it up to the morgue,” Sullivan said. “It kind of pays off in the end, because they have this new technology they’ve been working on to identify these small, tiny remains.”
After Sept. 11, 2001, the fire department began to make changes, especially to its leadership positions. Sullivan and other leaders began taking counter-terrorism classes at the United States Military Academy in West Point. One of the assignments, he recalled, was for firefighters to design their own terrorist attack that would inflict the most damage on New York City. Doing this, he said, allowed firefighters to think like terrorists and prepare for all possible situations.
Though Sullivan said he always loved the job, he also grappled with how much it took him away from his family. While responding to a 2001 Father’s Day fire in Queens that killed three firefighters, Sullivan remembers calling his young daughter to tell her he wouldn’t be coming home for dinner: “She said, ‘But Dad, all daddies come home to be with their children on Father’s Day.’ And I’m thinking of these poor guys. They’re not coming home. And I never forgot that conversation.”
After 30-plus years, Sullivan has decided to call it a career. Though he has more free time these days, Sullivan spends much of it at the Yorktown Heights Volunteer Fire Department, which he has been a member of for 25 years.
He praised the Yorktown department for being “really well-trained.” He said it is one of the only departments in the Hudson Valley area that has swift water rescue and dive teams, meaning its services are often called upon by neighboring communities. He said not many residents realize the department is entirely volunteer, with about 80 active members. He also praised the department’s Junior Corps program, that trains young residents in the basics of firefighting.
The Yorktown firefighters recently surprised Sullivan with a retirement cruise around New York City.