Family of fallen 9'11 rescuer fights DOJ

New York Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) and Charles Schumer (D), and Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) gathered with President Bush at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York Sunday to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, but behind the scenes they are struggling with his administration over the controversial death of one rescuer.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Glenn Winuk — whose first love in life was being a firefighter but who became a lawyer at Holland & Knight to earn a better living — did what would be natural to any first responder near the scene of a disaster: he rushed to it. Winuk raced from his nearby office to Ground Zero to rescue survivors and died when the South Tower collapsed.

Near St. Paul’s Chapel this weekend, Bush spoke in front of a 56-foot-long bronze bas-relief sculpture outside the Ladder Company 10 and Engine Company 10 firehouse donated by Holland & Knight as a tribute to Winuk and the 343 firefighters who died in the attacks.

But the Justice Department last week made public a ruling that Winuk was not eligible to be recognized as a firefighter having died in the line of duty despite his years of volunteer service. Justice made the decision because at the time of his death Winuk had downgraded his affiliation with the Jericho, Long Island, fire department to “associate member.”

The decision has surprised many New York officials because it overruled the findings of a hearing officer appointed by Justice to adjudicate the case and because it disregarded the intervention of several prominent New York leaders, including Gov. George Pataki (R) and two of New York’s most powerful members of Congress, Clinton and King, who is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

“I write to ask that the Department of Justice act without further delay and find that Glenn J. Winuk is eligible for the Public Safety Officer’s Benefit,” Clinton wrote in an Aug. 16 letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. “Recognition of Glenn’s heroism is long overdue, and it is my hope that the DOJ will see fit to award Glenn the same status as the other brave men and women who also sacrificed their lives for others on that tragic day.” 

Jay Winuk, Glenn’s older brother, met with Clinton last month to explain his brother’s case. Since Clinton wrote her letter, Winuk said, Sen. Charles Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) staff has also offered to help battle the Justice Department.

The New York state legislature and Pataki have also intervened by passing and signing into law a bill that declared Winuk an active member of the Jericho volunteer fire department at the time of his death and eligible for all benefits of active employees.

The Justice Department’s decision has denied Winuk’s parents $250,000 in federal benefits.

Jay Winuk said his family’s fight is about much more than money.

“Our family is doing this because Glenn deserves to be honored in the same way by the United States of America as all other rescuers who sacrificed their lives on Sept. 11 to protect their country and save other lives, “ said Winuk. “It really is about honor. Firefighters and policemen shouldn’t have to worry about if something should happen to them that their families have to struggle to have that great sacrifice recognized.”

King has also gotten involved by writing two letters to Justice.

“It makes absolutely no sense to me,” said King, who is working with Jay Winuk on the case. “In many ways Glenn Winuk personifies everyone on Sept. 11. He was both a civilian and a firefighter. He was evacuated as a civilian and he raced back in as a firefighter.”

King said that he’s been in discussions with former New York mayor and possible 2008 presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani (R) about how to win recognition for Winuk.

Thomas Von Essen, who is Giuliani’s business partner at Giuliani-Von Essen LLC and who was New York City’s fire commissioner at the time of the attacks, weighed in with the hearing officer appointed by Justice, Daniel Skoler.

“He had both the training and the guts to step forward in the face of great danger when it was needed most,” Von Essen wrote of Winuk in a letter to Skoler. “That’s what firemen do. I can assure you that true firemen don’t care about their membership status when life is at stake, and every indication is that Glenn Winuk was a true fireman.”

King said he didn’t know what the next step would be, but vowed to continue pressing the issue.

Winuk said that only Justice has opposed recognizing his brother.

“Every other entity in a position to recognize Glenn’s sacrifice officially has done so,” he said. “Only the federal government in the form of the Department of Justice has failed to do so and refuses to do so.”

He has continued to honor his brother by helping direct the Glenn J. Winuk Humanitarian Fund, which makes grants to educational and community service groups. He also serves as vice president for My Good Deed, a group devoted to establishing Sept. 11 as a national day of service.

He said he expects to appeal the Justice Department’s decision in court.

The Justice Department did not comment by press time.