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

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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.

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.

IF ANYONE KNOWS WHAT IT’S LIKE to be a black man in the Philadelphia Fire Department, it’s Lloyd Ayers.

Ayers is 60 now and plans to retire in mid-2014, so his legacy is beginning to take shape. A short, heavyset man with a demeanor that runs from affable to curt in the course of two hour-long interviews, he grew up in North Philly, around 29th and Lehigh. He joined the fire department in the 1970s, when some firehouses were still restricting African-Americans­ to “blacks-only” silverware, plates and cots—a vestige of the department’s troubled racial history, dating back to riots in the 1800s. Ayers became one of the first African-American firefighters to advance into the department’s hierarchy.

He also had a connection to the Slivinskis: Ayers was among those who dug through rubble to free Jack Sr. after he became trapped in the basement of a collapsed­ house in the early 1980s. But respect earned fighting blazes wasn’t enough to quell the racism that still infected the department.

After more than a decade on the job, Ayers made lieutenant. The day the promotions list came out, in December of 1985, Ayers arrived at Fire Engine 2 in Kensington to find an oddly decorated Christmas tree. The treetop wasn’t marked by an angel or a star, but by a stuffed monkey. “Hey, Lloyd,” a couple of white firefighters razzed him. “That’s you up there.”

The message was clear: You may be a lieutenant by rank, but you’ll always be a monkey to us.

Later, when he was a battalion chief, a white firefighter spat into his hat.

Ayers joined the Valiants early in his career, ultimately ascending to president. Roughly 20 years later, racial tension still runs high. In 2009, the Valiants filed a suit with the city and Local 22 over racist postings that had been allowed to stand on the union’s message boards. One claimed black firefighters lacked the intelligence to use a flashlight; another suggested they occupied a lower rung than whites on the evolutionary scale. The Valiants eventually settled with both the city and the union.

What’s changed is that the accusations now also run in the other direction—from white firefighters to their black departmental superiors. As commissioner, Ayers has appointed former Valiants officers like Ernest Hargett, Willie Williams and the recently deceased Daniel Williams as high-ranking members of his administration. His predecessor, Harold Hairston, who is also black, says this cast was sure to escalate racial tension. “I think they were wide open to at least the perception of racism and favoritism,” he says, “just given their history as members of a race-based group.”

Hairston himself once received a vote of “no confidence” from the Valiants, an odd blow for the first African-American commissioner in the department’s history. And the question now is if the Ayers administration is running the department with both obvious goals—suppressing fires, fetching care to the sick—and personal ones. Namely, pleasing the hard-core Valiants.

According to a recent report produced by the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, 87 percent of the department’s white firefighters believe that disciplinary decisions are biased by race; less than 30 percent of all firefighters think that hiring and promotions are done “without regard to race or ethnic background.” It’s an allegation Ayers categorically rejects. “It’s personally insulting,” he says. “Given my history, I know, better than anyone, how important it is to handle our business in a racially sensitive and unbiased way.”

Numerous stories of unfair race-based treatment circulate through the city’s engine houses. There is the story about African-American Cory Nuble, who complained that a pair of black lieutenants harassed him for being too friendly with white firefighters. There is the story of Troy Gore, an African-American fire captain and Valiants officer who inquired, in an email, if there was some way for minority candidates to circumvent application deadlines. Gore received a 30-day suspension, then got promoted directly thereafter. And then there’s the one about the African-American lieutenant who brought in a broken cable box from home, swapped it out with a working box at the station, then called Comcast to fix the “station’s” cable box. (Comcast discovered the deception.) The lieutenant had committed a theft, but no formal punishment resulted.

These are the sorts of stories that found their way to the ear of Jack Slivinski Jr., convincing him—and evidently 87 percent of the city’s white firefighters—that the racial politics of the Philadelphia Fire Department were all-consuming. And Jack thought they might one day consume him. “Me and Jack actually talked about it,” says one African-American firefighter. “Both of us thought all the racial stuff just added needless stress.”

Ayers says he decides on discipline in any given situation based on a bare recitation of the facts—no names, no genders, no races included. “None of that plays a role,” he says. But this is, in many respects, a story about perception—a story about the destruction racism can inflict if it’s not confronted in every aspect: both in its actuality, and in its mere appearance.

Firefighters aren’t allowed to be interviewed by the media without departmental approval. So in order to provide open, honest responses, the city firefighters I spoke to requested anonymity. Further, the fire department’s union, Local 22, declined to give the names of members involved in specific cases because of its own responsibility to defend all of its members. But within these restrictions, here are some examples of what Philadelphia magazine found:


There are scores of similar stories. Ayers addresses them all in a bunch, saying that “the whole context” of any given case must be understood to appreciate his decision-making.­ (He also couldn’t discuss specific cases, because the same privacy laws that keep the union from naming names restrict him.)

But the most dramatic examples revolve around deputy fire chief Rob Wilkins. Long rumored to be among Mayor Nutter’s potential picks to succeed Ayers, Wilkins was charged in the fall of 2011 with assaulting his wife. The fire department found that he failed to report his arrest, contrary to department regulations. Wilkins, an African-­American and a former Valiants board member, received a 48-hour suspension­. (Ayers confirms this.) In March, Wilkins reached an agreement with the Bucks County D.A., pleading guilty to summary offenses of harassment and disorderly conduct.

Compare that level of punishment to white firefighters who committed seemingly lesser offenses, such as one who hollered “That’s bullshit. It won’t work” at a training session for a new piece of equipment. He received an 80-hour suspension—nearly twice what Wilkins got for failure to report his own arrest. The white fireman was also forced to undergo anger management classes. Or consider the case of Mike Bresnan, a lieutenant and the president of CAFFA, accused of posting a comment critical of Ayers on Ayers demoted Bresnan. Bresnan later got his post back in arbitration.

Philadelphia magazine also obtained a memo, written by AFSCME Local 2187 union president Kahim Boles, complaining to Ayers that Wilkins had to be restrained from assaulting one of his employees at a January 2010 meeting. The memo accuses Wilkins of yelling profanities and threatening to go to the home of union official David Mora to assault him. (Philadelphia confirmed the accuracy of the memo with both Mora and Enrique Bravo, an Information Systems staffer who attended the meeting.) Wilkins received no punishment from Ayers, who says that after investigating, he felt that “whatever happened didn’t rise to the level where punishment was necessary.”

Problem is, Ayers is reaching a point where distrust of his administration creates its own momentum. “At the end of the day, whether the allegations are true almost doesn’t matter,” says City Councilman Jim Kenney, a longtime champion of the fire department. “This is a management problem. You just can’t allow a department where 75 percent feel the process is biased to go on that way.”

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.

Years passed.

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.

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.­

TODAY, LLOYD AYERS SPEAKS OF MAKING CHANGES. There is a “consistency log,” kept by his office, in which punishments and infractions are recorded, to ensure similar penalties. “We’re moving toward releasing­ that in some way,” he says, as a means of combating the perception of racism within the fire department.

If he does so, it will be a big move—the kind of initiative that might vindicate him. Still, Ayers seems bent on keeping some of the department’s traditional dysfunction firmly in place. Consider the basics of how discipline is still meted out: In the police department, officers are given a rulebook listing infractions and associated punishments; firefighters receive a rulebook containing only the infractions, allowing the commissioner to assign whatever punishment he wants for anything. Ayers says he’s willing to formalize the link between offense and penalty, but only to a limited degree. “I think we need to retain the ability to judge things on a case-by-case basis,” he says.

The Nutter administration seems content with that. Chief of staff and deputy mayor for public safety Everett Gillison defends Ayers’s record. “He faces a lot of criticism because he is managing in such difficult times,” says Gillison, “with constant cuts, and no one getting the raises or shifts they expected.” He states unequivocally that the administration will “stand behind its fire commissioner as we go forward.”

But the real takeaway from conversations with Ayers, Gillison and others is a kind of defeatism—a sense that the racial tension in the Philadelphia Fire Department, white on black, black on white, is simply too ingrained to ever be conquered. That some level of racial distrust has always been, and thus shall always be.

“If we show them they’re wrong about discipline,” says Ayers, “the union will just find something else.”

“I’m not sure this dynamic will ever change,” says union trustee Mike Kane. “It’s always been like this.”

“When you talk about racial tension in the fire department,” says Gillison, “you’re talking about a situation that dates back to the beginning of this country’s history.” As if what happened in the 1700s should compel continued tension in 2012.

This backward-looking attitude is particularly troubling in light of the story of Jack Slivinski Jr.—discovered in the middle of the night lying dead on his bedroom carpet.­ A white firefighter who killed himself over the guilt he felt toward the black firefighter who died for him.

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