By all accounts, there was no sound at all when the Brooklyn Waldbaums roof collapsed on that August morning in 1978, killing six members of the FDNY.
Members of the FDNY had been on the scene for less than an hour. There was a massive roof operation to vent the building hampered by raging flames and brutal smoke. The construction of the building, with unknown open spaces and trusses holding up the roof’s weight, proved to be deadly.
In the aftermath, a man named Eric Jackson was arrested, confessed to setting a fire in a space between two roofs that had been built and sentenced to prison. The attorney for the families, Bob Sullivan, earned instant recognition for securing damages for his clients in a landmark decision.
A member of the law firm of Sullivan Papain Block McGrath Coffinas & Cannavo, P.C., Sullivan has built a practice and a reputation based on a commitment to help families heal and move forward.
As he had prepared the civil case, he became sure that Jackson was innocent of the crime. Nevertheless, he had a decision to make.
“I called all of the families in and told them that I was absolutely convinced that he had not set the fire, and he was innocent,” Sullivan remembers. “I needed their blessing to represent Eric. This is not a very typical situation.”
One of his clients, a mother of six children who had lost their father, spoke for the group.
“She said, ‘I’m so glad you said that. His defense lawyer was a joke, and we don’t think he did it, either.’”
So Sullivan brought the case to the court. The judge, who had presided over the original trial and regretted the outcome, asked him, “Are you going to go all the way?”
He did, and since 1988 Sullivan gets a call every Christmas from Jackson, who was released from prison after Sullivan fought for him through the Appellate Court and even a retrial. The Brooklyn DA’s office had prosecuted despite knowing that Jackson was innocent.
Sullivan has been representing firefighters and their families for over four decades, and has been involved in some of the most tragic events in the history of the FDNY and the world.
“The firm’s office was just four blocks from the World Trade Center, and the day after, we were on a call to decide how we could help,” Sullivan says. “Before we did anything else, the firm donated $50,000 and then went to work to make sure all of the families would be taken care of.”
Once the Uniformed Firefighters Association founded the UFA Widow’s and Children’s Fund, Sullivan’s firm dedicated five attorneys who commandeered a cavernous conference room and worked around the clock, pro bono, to help families receive assistance after the deaths of their loved ones. The firm did 362 cases, far eclipsing any other firm’s commitment.
“We took not a dime,” Sullivan says.
While it may seem surprising that it has already been 20 years since the 9/11 attacks, it is not to Sullivan.
“What surprises me is how many people are still getting sick from 9/11-related work,” he says.
His firm has continued to fight for the victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks, securing millions in aid.
Sullivan has a deep appreciation for all first responders. His firm has also represented many members of the NYPD. However, he feels a particular attachment to firefighters.
“I love representing firefighters,” Sullivan says. “They are special. When someone is living their nightmare, running from a fire, they are running in to try to save people, pets, whoever they can.
“I also think firefighters make better fathers than lawyers,” he jokes. “Of course, that’s not really true, but firefighters teach their children differently, interact with each other differently.”
Sullivan also represents clients who have faced other tragedies.
A self-professed Type A personality, Sullivan “hates traffic, crowds, anything in the way.”
A father of six children, he and his wife have owned a home in Cutchogue for 20 years. He has some favorite places, including Love Lane Kitchen in Mattituck, where he always gets oatmeal.
“Us North Forkers, we like our oatmeal,” Sullivan says. “I don’t think they would get that on the South Fork!”
His kids like Claudio’s, and after he joins them for an early evening burger, and then leaves them to their partying. “I tell them to take an Uber, and I leave,” he says.
The North Fork is Sullivan’s place to totally disconnect, recharge and bring his best to his clients. So when he reaches the traffic circle near Peconic Hospital, he begins to unwind.
He also has a very unique and personal ritual he uses to remain motivated and focused during trials.
“I ask my clients for a photo of their loved one, and that photo stays on my desk until the trial is over,” Sullivan says. “On those nights when I want to go home, I look at that picture and stay at my desk and keep working.”
Todd Shapiro is an award-winning publicist and associate publisher of Dan’s Papers.