Inside the Philadelphia Fire Department: Did Racial Tension Contribute to One Fireman’s Suicide?
IN THE WORLD OF THE FIREHOUSE, it’s expected that firefighters will just move on after a fatal fire. “You learn,” says one, “that when someone comes around after a big fire and asks if anyone needs to talk, you’re supposed to say, ‘No.’”
Part of that is the macho code of firefighting, still an overwhelmingly male enterprise. The other piece is that a lot of firefighters don’t trust the Employee Assistance Program, which is overseen by the department administration.
Local 22 is starting its own counseling service. But without a concerted effort, it remains likely that a firefighter who suffers some trauma or depression, like Jack Slivinski Jr., will continue to hide his real feelings. After Lieutenant Harvey died, “I asked Jack if he needed to talk about it,” says his father. “And he said, ‘No.’ I wish I’d talked to him more.”
Thing is, “Smiling Jack” was a good firefighter. And he did a good job of acting normal. He remained the life of the firehouse. He lit firecrackers behind firefighters engrossed in a TV show; he loaded up coffee cups with salt. When he was feeling particularly creative, he would devise Rube Goldberg contraptions—using a victim’s own locker, a piece of string, a cup made from tinfoil and a few fistfuls of flour—that instantly covered his hapless dupe in white.
When his father, then in his mid-50s, departed the elite Rescue 1 unit, Jack applied for and got his spot. There, he practiced some of the most demanding and sophisticated tactics of the fire department—learning to extricate crash victims from wrecked cars, to safely negotiate the shafts and crags of a collapsed building, to save lives that were, without him, already lost. But at home, it was Slivinski who needed help.
At his house in Lawndale, he maintained his own makeshift shrine, this one to his fallen lieutenant—photos, the funeral program, a plaque he had made, and the run sheet from the fatal fire, listing the address, the engines that responded, the time, and other basic facts about the blaze.
Along the way, a love story unfolded. Spotting Carla across a crowded Chickie’s & Pete’s on the Boulevard, a suddenly shy Jack sent a friend over to start a conversation. “We were together from that point, really fast,” remembers Carla. “And through most of our relationship, we hung out with a couple of friends or Jack’s parents. But mostly it was just the two of us, talking for hours at a time.”
Then, during one of their first dates, Jack burst into tears. “He told me about the fire and Lieutenant Harvey,” she says.
He told her he felt guilty. That he was scared. And that he felt he had to hide it all—from his fellow firefighters, even from his dad. She suggested he find a counselor. But that was a non-starter. So the long conversations continued after they were married in 2007, increasingly interrupted by Jack’s bouts of moody, irritable behavior. And it always came back to the fire. Crying, he would tell Carla, “I don’t deserve to be alive. Why am I alive and Harvey isn’t? Harvey was a better man than me.”
Finally, in 2010, he said he wanted to break up. “I don’t want to be responsible to anyone,” he told Carla. “I don’t want to think about anyone being left behind if I die.”
So they parted. But inside of a year, Jack told Carla that he never should have asked for the separation. “I was going slow,” she says, “because I didn’t want him to hurt me again. But we were reconciling.”
“I thought Jack was getting his life together,” says his mother. “He seemed happy. Getting back together with Carla was a matter of time.”
Then Jack saw a beefcake calendar. And he got an idea.