Inside the Philadelphia Fire Department: Did Racial Tension Contribute to One Fireman’s Suicide?

Jack Slivinski Jr.’s mysterious death is only the beginning of the saga.

 

He opened the door, pushing in without a knock.

“Jack,” he called into the dark. “Jack!”

No answer. But he knew his way around his son’s house, and he walked straight toward the bedroom. From the threshold, he could see the worst: his son’s body, slumped across the floor. Blood on his head. Handgun on the ground.

Like his son, Jack Slivinski Sr. was a fireman. He had attended many tragic scenes, seen many dead. And he knew: His son Jack was now one of them. But that didn’t stop him from rolling the body over, placing his mouth over his son’s. “The breath of life,” they call it, a procedure both men had learned on the job.

He called an ambulance, then his wife.

And this is how mysteries start: In the middle of the night, with dead bodies on bedroom carpets.

When we think of unexplained deaths, we think of murder. Our protagonist is the cynical homicide cop who tallies the facts and catches the killer. Suicides, it turns out, involve a similar kind of mystery. Only in those cases, it’s the relatives—say, parents like Jack Slivinski’s father, and his mother, Gerry—who act as the sleuths. They are the ones left behind to solve the riddle: Why did my son take his own life?

In the case of Jack Slivinski Jr., his parents found no shortage of reasons.

There was a fatal fire, early in his career, in which his lieutenant died trying to find him in the surging flames. The guilt Jack felt never eased.

Jack and his wife of three years, Carla, were separated. They were trying to reconcile. But nothing was guaranteed.

And then there was the calendar.

The calendar seems like the smallest thing, and it should have been: Jack had agreed to pose for a charity calendar to benefit the fire department’s Widows’ Fund. He posed shirtless, his heavily muscled frame exposed above his firefighter’s pants. And a tempest the media called “Nipplegate” ensued.

Citing him for representing the fire department without permission, Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers detailed Slivinski from the city’s most elite unit, Rescue 1, to a slower station in West Philadelphia. “We don’t sell sex,” he told the Daily News. “We sell safety.” More bizarrely, he added, “We get letters from children. They look up to us. We can’t allow them to be showing nipples in photographs of Philadelphia firefighters.”

In the resulting media maelstrom, Slivinski emerged the winner. Public pressure mounted to return him to his specialized rescue unit; a week or so later, Ayers did. But less than two months after that, the 32-year-old was lying dead on his bedroom floor.

Now, there’s no more room for mystery.

Because the story of Jack Slivinski Jr. is a mirror of the centuries-long drama of the Philadelphia Fire Department, one fueled by both racial animus and the bravery of men of different races who regularly risk their lives for us and each other. It is a story that hinges on a meeting between a young white firefighter and an African-American commissioner—­and ends in a suicide.

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  • Brad

    Does it not raise any eyebrows that Commissioner Ayers has been a lightning rod of controversay since the day he joined the fire department? Where’s Joe Rizzo when you need him.

  • Benjamen

    Well written and balanced article.

  • Liz

    It’s very sad that Jack didn’t get treatment for the very obvious Post Traumatic Stress Disorder he was suffering after the fire. The Philly Fire Dept. should be answering tough questions about mental health care as well as calendars. Also, I’d be interested to know when the antidepressant use began relative to the suicide. Initial use can cause suicidality. Finally, alcohol is a depressant, and was probably a piece of the puzzle. There were enough psychological and psychiatric issues here to account for the suicide, even without the calendar dustup. So sad.

  • victor

    Now that African-Americans are in power and the majority in places such as Philadelphia, it is also time that the African-American community must recognize that they are in the position of the oppressor, not the oppressed. Racism is institutional, and they are at the helm of institutions. They must learn to tread as carefully, and err on the side of being generous, just as whites in positions of power have learned, or been compelled, to do.

  • Susan

    How can the Mayor allow the Ayers to hand out punishment without developing a proper and fair guidebook that the police follow. This is wrong. If just this one thing was done, it would have a huge impact.