Family: Firefighter's Death 'Was Just A Tragic Accident'
Firefighter Daniel Pujdak was a man of many dreams. The former star pitcher at St. Francis Preparatory School could have accomplished anything he set his mind to, family and fellow firefighters said.
"He had a heart as big as the sky. The kid embraced life, he gobbled it up," said firefighters at Ladder 146 in Brooklyn, where Pujdak was assigned for the last 20 months.
Pujdak, 23, of Fresh Meadows, suffered massive head injuries and went into cardiac arrest after falling 60-feet from a ladder in front of stunned comrades at a warehouse fire on June 21. The young firefighter climbed a ladder to the roof of the building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with more than 120 pounds of gear on his back, including a 40- pound power saw that appeared to have shifted as he attempted to step onto the roof of the building, according to FDNY officials. As he stepped from the ladder to the roof parapet it appeared that he slipped. While Pujdak was wearing a harness, it was not connected to the ladder, an FDNY official said.
Family members spoke to the press June 23, saying they felt no bitterness against Karen Van Wart, the careless smoker who set the warehouse blaze by leaving a lit cigarette on a windowsill. "It was just a tragic accident," the firefighter's older brother David, said. "Nobody is to blame." Pujdak's younger brother Matt, said: "I agree completely. It doesn't matter, all of that. He was doing his job. It's a firefighter's job to go in, whether the building was legal or illegal. The outcome is still the same."
Fire officials said no one should have been living in the apartment where the blaze erupted on June 21. Three people, including Van Wart lived in the apartment with the wooden windowsills.
Officials at the city Department of Buildings (DOB) said the former factory, built in 1920, did not have a proper Certificate of Occupancy (C of O). The building owner, Nachman Brach, said he filed papers for the certificate, but never completed the process. Brach told reporters he refuses to take responsibility for the fire that killed Pujdak.
"It didn't happen because of the building or the tenants," Brach said.
Four of five apartments on the top floor of the building were issued immediate vacate orders on June 22 by the Buildings Department. DOB officials said the units were unfit for occupancy because they do not have proper means of egress.
Fire officials ordered most of the remaining tenants to evacuate the building temporarily because of fire code violations including exposed wires and electrical boxes and debris piled up in stairwells, an FDNY spokesperson said.
David Pujdak said his younger brother "loved being a firefighter. It was what he wanted to be."
Matt Pujdak recalled how happy his brother was last week, when the family celebrated Matt's graduation and talked about how the younger brother planned to follow in Daniel Pujdak's footsteps. Matt is expected to join the next class in the FDNY Academy later this summer.
Neighbors recalled seeing Daniel and his girlfriend Vanessa leaving the apartment together, hand-in-hand on June 21, and said they were a very sweet, loving couple, they were so happy together. The brothers recalled that Daniel was "close to popping the question" and asking Vanessa to marry him.
The brothers joined their dad, Leo, at Pujdak's duplex apartment in Fresh Meadows on June 23, where they left carrying several of Daniel's white and blue FDNY dress shirts. Vanessa returned to the apartment after the tragedy and left in tears, carrying a small white kitten Daniel had recently surprised her with.
"It was so clear that they loved each other to death," said neighbor Sheila Tornatore. Fellow firefighters at Ladder 146 said the firehouse is filled with broken hearts. "He was the kind of guy who showed up at 4:30 a.m. for a 6 a.m. tour," said Captain Jerry Horton. "He walked in and the place lit up."
Pujdak was a graduate of St. Francis Preparatory School in Fresh Meadows, where his father was a teacher. Pujdak earned a degree in fitness at SUNY Cortland in Upstate New York and worked as a personal trainer at the Greenpoint YMCA. "He was an overachiever who loved life," Horton said. "He used to say that no matter what, life should be fun."