Inside the Philadelphia Fire Department: Did Racial Tension Contribute to One Fireman’s Suicide?
THE DEPTH OF THE SLIVINSKIS’ LOSS is apparent in every corner of their cozy home on Pennypack Park, in an idyllic little enclave near Fox Chase. There, on a credenza near the entrance, Gerry has erected a shrine to her fallen son: myriad snapshots of a smiling Jack orbiting a poster-size photo portrait of him on his wedding day.
For almost a year, her life has revolved around one question: Why?
The answer strikes at her core: Because he was a fireman.
Gerry Slivinski has taken as much pride in her husband’s 35-year firefighting career as he has. That pride extended to their son, who chose the same path. Years ago, she created another shrine, using an entire room of the house—a tribute to firefighting in which every tchotchke represents some piece of gear, and the paintings on the walls convey adoration. In one portrait, firefighters lift a ladder in front of an image of the Iwo Jima flag-raisers; in another, flames morph into angel wings.
“As a kid, he used to play with fire trucks,” Jack Sr. says, “and when I’d come home, if I had any gear, he played with that.”
“You know how if you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, their answer always changes,” adds Gerry. “His never did.” In 2002, Jack Jr., fresh from a two-year stint in the Marines, became a Philadelphia firefighter.
Slivinski crossed color lines for friendships, getting along with his fellow firefighters regardless of their race—not an easy trick in the Philadelphia Fire Department, which is host to at least three race-based associations. While Local 22 is the union that bargains on behalf of all of the city’s fire-department employees, there’s also a Hispanic Firefighters Association; the Concerned American Firefighters Association, or CAFFA (largely regarded as the “white” group); and the Valiants Club, the African-American firefighters association.
“The department has always been caught up in race,” says one white firefighter. “When the Irish were in charge, the Irish did well. When the Italians ran the city, Italians did well. Until recently, African-Americans never did well.”
In this atmosphere, distrust is endemic. Because the current fire commissioner is a past president of the Valiants, many white employees believe he only looks out for African-Americans. Because Local 22’s leadership includes high-ranking members of CAFFA, many African-American firefighters believe they get no respect from their own union. It’s a deeply Philly Gordian knot of racial tension—one Jack tried undoing with a grin.
“I called him ‘Smiling Jack,’” says Eric Fleming, the current president of the Valiants. “A lot of the younger guys get along like that. They listen to the same music and wear a lot of the same clothes. It’s when some of the older guys get involved that you can find problems.”
“Jack hated it,” Carla Slivinski says of the department’s dysfunctional racial dynamic. “He said there was just a constant awareness of race that he’d never encountered, even in the military. You couldn’t escape it. But he tried to ignore it.”
In Slivinski’s early days on the force, his most important mentor was Lieutenant Derrick Harvey, a black firefighter who brought his men gifts and helped them study for promotional exams. “Jack and Harvey were really close,” says another African-American firefighter who knew Jack well. “Harvey looked out for Jack.”
Then, in January 2004, Jack held the tip of a fire hose and opened the front door to a house in Logan, and the whole arc of his life changed.
Smoke filled the room within from floor to ceiling, signaling a basement fire. Visibility was zero. Jack crawled into the house by touch, Harvey and another firefighter on all fours behind him, trying to find the basement door. But the house had an odd layout, and they couldn’t locate the stairs. After several minutes, their oxygen packs were spiraling toward empty, and the floor began to feel spongy with the heat coming from the basement. They radioed for help.
At some point, Lieutenant Harvey went outside. But he eventually crawled back in, looking for his men. As he shimmied over the hottest part of the fire, the floor underneath him collapsed. He was found draped over a support beam, his body licked by flames.
Firefighters from another engine came in to help push back the fire, and Slivinski escaped out the back door. Harvey died a week later. Jack was physically unharmed. But he never recovered.