Firefighter Recalled as Grumpy but Generous

By Sarah Dorsey Chief Leader

Fire Lieut. G. Ricco Diaz had no problem coming up with humanitarian deeds to share about his friend, Luis Fragoso. The retired Fire Lieutenant died April 19 at age 59 of a heart attack related to emphysema he developed serving at the World Trade Center.

Mr. Diaz summed up his character, though, with a single phrase: “Luis was your typical real firefighter.”

‘His Thing Was to Serve’

“He is the basic definition of a real firefighter because his thing was to serve,” Lieutenant Diaz said, later explaining that he was “your invisible firefighter…He was the guy that did the work and you never saw him.”

Mr. Fragoso, known to friends as Louie or Pepe, had the firefighter’s natural aversion to being lauded for his heroics, Mr. Diaz said, though he’d rescued civilians on the job and was cited for bravery. Many colleagues were surprised to learn for the first time at his funeral, where a military honor guard performed, about the years he’d served in the U.S. Army and the Coast Guard.

“He’d never boast about” his accomplishments, Lieutenant Diaz said. “It wasn’t pinned up on his locker or anywhere.”

Mr. Fragoso had more than just the bravery and tactical skills to beat back a fire. He also co-founded and chaired the FDNY’s Disaster Assistance Response Team, a group of off-duty and retired firefighters who work with the Red Cross to serve communities around the world during emergencies.

According to Mr. Diaz, DART—which has since spread to fire departments in several states—began as a spark in Mr. Fragoso’s mind in 1989 after he and a buddy served with the Red Cross on a 20-person team in Puerto Rico responding to Hurricane Hugo. He’d gone with a colleague, then-Firefighter Cesar Rivera.

‘Do It More Often’

“He goes over to Cesar and says, ‘This was an awesome thing we did. We were good at it; why can’t we do it more often?’’’ said Lieutenant Diaz. “And the concept of DART was born.”

Red Cross volunteers are commonly drawn from the very young or the very old—those with the time on their hands to participate, Mr. Diaz noted. Lieutenant Fragoso felt that firefighters could contribute something desperately needed during natural disasters: their on-the-job skills and their cool under pressure. Firefighters “are conditioned to working in adverse conditions,” Mr. Diaz said. Extreme cold and heat, smoke, hazardous materials and flooding don’t faze them. “…If it’s time to go to work, we go to work.”

Mr. Fragoso and Mr. Rivera got support from the Hispanic Society, where Mr. Diaz was on the executive board, and then approached department brass and pitched their idea for a permanent disaster-response team.

At first, fire officials balked. Who would pay if they got hurt battling wildfires in California? How would they justify the extra overtime on the books?

Did It on Vacation Time

Mr. Fragoso came up with a solution—DART members would use their vacation time on missions—and negotiated with top Chiefs to allow them to go on a moment’s notice. The crew packed panic bags in their basements at home so they could be ready when a disaster cropped up.

Behind the scenes, Lieutenant Fragoso set up all the logistics—booking the flights and rental cars, sending vans to take them to the airport and finding somewhere for them to sleep in the field: an armory, a high-school gymnasium, a tent with cots. As the FDNY’s numbers fell in recent years due to a discrimination lawsuit that froze hiring, he made sure to call retired members first to avoid costing the department needed manpower.

“It was just in his nature. It was just the way he was,” Lieutenant Diaz said of the drive that propelled his friend to keep working even after he fell ill. “I think it was just genetically in his blood.”

“The weird thing about Louie, he was not a people person,” he continued. “So when you met him he seemed difficult, almost like a Scrooge. But he was like Christmas Past and Christmas Future all wrapped into one. He was always giving.”

“He always wanted to seem grumpy; maybe it was his way of protecting his vulnerability,” he added.

‘He Made Things Happen’

Over the years, Mr. Diaz said that Mr. Fragoso flew to countless disasters, among them earthquakes in California, tornadoes in Oklahoma and Texas, wildfires and floods in Florida, several hurricanes and an ice storm affecting Indian nations in Canada.

“Quietly, behind the scenes, he made things happen,” he said. “A lot of us took the limelight; we got our pictures in the paper, but it was really him pulling the strings the whole time.”

Lieutenant Fragoso leaves behind four adult children: Eugene, Emily, Luis and Raven. In lieu of flowers, his family requested that donations be made in his name to the Red Cross and the Wounded Warrior Project.

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