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FDNY adding late firefighter to honor wall after legal battle

The family of Thomas F. O'Brien, who died in October 1935, pushed for the recognition.

An honor guard stands in front of the

An honor guard stands in front of the FDNY Memorial Wall on Greenwich Street in Manhattan. Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

A New York City firefighter who died after battling a blaze more than 82 years ago is finally getting his name on the FDNY’s honor wall.

After a pro bono legal battle spearheaded by former Nassau County Surrogate Edward W. McCarty III, the FDNY and Commissioner Daniel Nigro agreed that Thomas F. O’Brien lost his life in the line of duty and his name can be added to the department’s Memorial Wall, officials and McCarty said.

The agreement came after McCarty filed a special legal proceeding in an attempt to compel the FDNY to affix O’Brien’s name to the honor wall.

O’Brien, 48, died in October 1935 after he was injured fighting the fire in Manhattan. An autopsy determined that he died as a result of a skull fracture, probably suffered after being struck by falling debris.

But despite the medical findings, O’Brien’s family was unable to convince the FDNY that his death was suffered in the line of duty — a requirement for placement on the memorial wall.

In a statement, city Law Department spokesman Nicholas Paolucci said the settlement Thursday “is a fair resolution of the legal matter.”

“That is all I wanted all along,” said Arthur O’Brien, the firefighter’s grandson. “I just wanted to restore his good name.”

McCarty, who is of counsel at the Lake Success firm of Vishnick McGovern Militzio LLP, couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.

Under the terms of the settlement, the FDNY agreed to install O’Brien’s name on the Memorial Wall at FDNY headquarters in Brooklyn within 90 days. The settlement wasn’t an admission of any wrongdoing and no compensation will be paid to relatives.

Arthur O’Brien, 68, of New Jersey, who tried for years, without success, to get his grandfather honored by the FDNY, praised the efforts of McCarty, former city medical examiner Michael Baden and Uniformed Firefighter Association President Gerard Fitzgerald for helping to reach the settlement.

O’Brien said he hoped his family’s struggle to gain recognition for his grandfather would allow other line-of-duty deaths to be recognized without a similar fight.

Baden sent a letter to O’Brien this year, supporting the 1935 findings of the original medical examiner on the case, Dr. Benjamin Morgan Vance. Along with the skull fracture, lacerations of the brain suffered by Thomas O’Brien caused his death, Vance said at the time. There was also a quantity of alcohol in O’Brien’s body, believed to have come from his efforts to alleviate pain, McCarty said.

Fitzgerald said Thursday he had been contacted by the family and upon reviewing the documentation contacted the FDNY and persuaded the agency to put the firefighter’s name on the wall.

“It’s a little late, but better late than never,” Fitzgerald said, adding that he is still mystified how the case fell through the cracks. “I have never heard of anything like this before. . . . I would hope something like this would never happen again.”

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