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.

IN LATE 2010, JACK DISCOVERED a calendar produced by the New York City fire department to benefit its widows, and wondered if Philly could produce one. He contacted the photographer, who surprised him with an invitation to take part in what she was calling Nation’s Bravest, a new calendar of ripped firefighters from 12 different cities.

Jack called his union president, Bill Gault of Local 22, to make sure he wouldn’t be violating any departmental regulations. Gault assured him it would be fine. Slivinski picked the firefighters’ Widows’ Fund to receive his share of the proceeds.

The photos that resulted, in spring 2011, capture him smiling charismatically above his chiseled torso and a pair of firefighter’s bunker pants. Philly high-rises soar dramatically in the background, straining toward a joyful blue sky. But when Lloyd Ayers saw an image from the shoot in the Daily News, he didn’t see a symbol of his brave firefighting force raising money for its widows and orphans. He saw a direct violation of departmental protocol.

Gault, the Local 22 president, had never cleared the photo shoot with the commissioner. No firefighter can represent the department in any form without the commissioner’s prior approval.

Ayers quickly detailed Slivinski out from Rescue 1, explaining his actions to the media by decrying Slivinski for showing his nipples. “When Jack got bumped, everyone figured it was just the first step toward a permanent transfer,” says one firefighter. “The department has always used these transfers to make firefighters miserable.”

That Ayers wanted to punish Slivinski has never really made any sense. Ayers himself appears in a video—still available on YouTube­—in a fire department sweater, giving an impromptu testimonial for the store Black and Nobel, an African-American-themed bookshop on Erie Avenue. Ayers lauds the store for fulfilling his “intellectual” needs. But Black and Nobel also sells racy books with suggestive titles like Raunchy—which smacks of hypocrisy, considering his criticism of Slivinski for selling “sex.”

Furthermore, a year earlier, a female African-American Philadelphia firefighter, Michelle McMillan, had posed for a Daily News “Sexy Singles” editorial package. Did McMillan ask for permission? And if she did, why was it granted when the word “sex” was right there in the title, and the photos of her were tilted to the sensual side?

Ayers initially told me he wasn’t sure if McMillan got permission for the shoot or not; he said he would “look into it.” An assistant later phoned to explain that McMillan wasn’t wearing any fire department gear and only represented herself as a member of the department by answering a question about her current employment. It’s one of those situations in which the answer seems a tad too legalistic: Was this about Slivinski’s pants, or his nipples? Or something else?

Today, Ayers still believes Slivinski was wrong to pose shirtless. “That situation was clear,” he says. “It was bare-skinned, and it went against everything we stand for.”

At the time, in spring 2011, the commissioner backed down. At his disciplinary session, Slivinski was informed he would be returned to his post at Rescue 1 and that a 48-hour suspension would be held in abeyance if he stayed out of trouble for a year. The special investigative officer on the case was Willie Williams, who gave Slivinski the usual options—accept the punishment, or take the matter to a trial board. Slivinski picked an item that wasn’t on the menu. He told Williams, “I’d like to consult with my attorney.”

Williams excused himself. When he returned, Commissioner Ayers came with him—an unheard-of step in disciplinary matters. “My guess is someone from the mayor’s office told Ayers, ‘We’re taking a beating on this. Make it go away,’” says union trustee Mike Kane. “So when Jack said ‘attorney,’ that was like the magic word.”

The suspension was now off the table. But Slivinski left the meeting with fear in his heart. He told Gerry, “This ain’t over, Ma.” He told Jack Sr. it felt like he had “a target on my back.”

According to Brian McBride, a former president of Local 22, Ayers was the first commissioner to demote people. “Other guys would transfer you to the station farthest from your house,” says McBride. “Ayers is the first guy to come right after your ability to put food on the table.”

Jack told his family he felt it was only a matter of time before Ayers found an excuse to hurt him.

The calendar posed the most serious and immediate threat: Jack had signed a contract not only releasing his photo for publication, but also committing him to attending promotional events. Ayers still wanted to block the photo’s release. If Slivinski honored his contract, would he be in trouble again?

Slivinski asked the commissioner directly, but felt he got no clear response. After Ayers left, Williams told Slivinski he knew the firefighter was “between a rock and a hard place.” The fire department code of conduct and the contract he’d signed for the calendar pulled him in opposite directions.

“I think the calendar was the final pressure point for Jack,” reports the African-American fireman who knew him well. “I think he felt like between Harvey’s death and the problems in his marriage and now this—he was like, ‘Look at me, I screw up everything I touch.’” Even during the years when Jack struggled with his guilt over Harvey’s death, he’d retained a sense that tomorrow beckoned. But after the calendar, he turned fatalistic. He told Carla, “I just don’t see how it can work out.” “The calendar issue is not the reason he killed himself,” she says. “But it was the final straw.”

Two months passed, during which Slivinski drank—a lot. He tried the Employee Assistance Program. Then a private psychologist. He started taking antidepressants. Then, on June 25, 2011, he called Carla from the station and told her he was going to drive to the Shore to see her.

It was almost 3 a.m.

He’d been drinking.

A shift loomed that morning.

Worried, Carla called his parents, hoping to stop him from making a foolish drive in the middle of the night. After a flurry of attempts to reach Jack failed, his father got in the car and took off for the house in Lawndale.­

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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.