There is not a person in Tarrytown who hasn’t been touched in some way by the tragic deaths of DPW worker Anthony Ruggiero and his fellow firefighter friend John Kelly on Labor Day weekend. I remember that the evening began quietly, and after a busy holiday celebration, I was grateful for an opportunity to rest. It wasn’t long before the sounds of sirens and fire trucks signaled that something was very wrong. Calls from two of my sons, who were at the scene, confirmed my fears. It had all happened so fast.
I, like many others, watched the recent Village Board meeting on TV as many friends of these two men stepped to the podium one by one and shared their feelings of outrage toward Village officials. Had I attended the meeting in person I’m sure I would have had to leave midway. The raw expression of emotion by each and every Village resident, who all shared their stories during the public comments portion of the session, was heart-wrenching and almost unbearable to watch.
The anger at times was explosive, contained at other times, but always deeply and personally felt. I remember learning a long time ago that anger is the only emotion which never exists alone. It is rather a cover, so to speak, for an underlying emotion that is even more true to one’s core. Loss, grief, frustration, fear, it was all there…a dramatic and desperate expression of deeply personal bereavement. One young man spoke poignantly of going to sleep with the pain at night and waking up in the morning hoping that it was all a nightmare…but the nightmare wasn’t going away.
Much of the anger was directed at Michael Blau, Village Administrator, for what was, at the very least, an untimely statement (prior to the victims’ funerals) concerning the tragedy. There was some attempt made by Mayor Fixell to justify the statement as being well-intentioned and planned to ward off the onslaught of media attention that had fallen on the Village. One resident suggested that given the Administrator’s purported level of expertise “No Comment” would have been the preferred response to the media. Many took the anger at Mr. Blau a step further, not just for his timing, but for the apparent inaccuracies in the statement which only served to fuel the anger by what some saw as an attempt to shift the burden of the tragedy to the men themselves. Some also implied that the inaccuracies were timed to ward off possible litigation. Largely the comments from the Mayor were minimal, even when some indicated that he, not Blau, should have been responsible for any press handling because it was the Mayor not the Administrator whom the people of Tarrytown had “gone to the polls for.”
Others spoke, who had varied experiences with safety regulations in both the private and public sectors. In their expert opinions, the lack of precautionary measures taken in the Village was a factor in the tragedy. Village firemen noted that they have always advocated for continual safety training and updated equipment but the Village Board’s approval for needed funds is difficult to procure. Many felt that the Village had been warned over the years about the lack of enforced safety measures.
There was no comment from the Village Trustees or from the Village Administrator on the most sensitive issues raised. The Mayor, clearly acting as spokesperson for the Board, made some attempts to respond in a controlled, conciliatory fashion. I cannot fault any of them for their near silence at the meeting. No one wanted this tragedy to happen and no words could make it better. Words had already made a tragic situation even worse. Since so much damage had been done by Mr. Blau’s unfortunate statement, to have commented in any substantive fashion other than to refer to an ongoing investigation would have only perpetuated a wrong.
Although it appears, given his presence, that the Mayor was in agreement with the statement’s timing, it remains unclear whether any Board member, or in fact the Mayor himself, was aware of the essence of the Administrator’s statement, prior to its delivery. Eventually the pure unvarnished truth concerning what contributed to this tragedy will be made known. The families, friends and residents of this village, deserve and will demand no less.
That meeting left me with an ache in my soul. This Village was being torn apart. Make no mistake about it, the Fire Department is a life force in this community….and when the Fire Department is broken, the Village is broken. We can only hope that there will come a time when the friends and families of these brave men will put their anger aside and focus on a positive, worthwhile cause in their memory…an event that promotes togetherness and recognizes the final efforts of Anthony Ruggiero and John Kelly for what they were — an attempt by two fine, brave men to do the right thing by performing their duties in the best way they could. Let that…not anger…be their proud legacy.