A Look Back At 2019: WCBS 880's Year In Review

Lou Alvarez, Jon Stewart
Photo credit Jack Gruber, USAT

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — As 2019 comes to a close, WCBS 880 reporters share the stories that stood out to them the most this year in a special two-part In Depth Podcast. 

The Fight For The 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund

The year began not knowing if there would be enough money to pay for the expenses of the heroes who saved so many lives back in 2001. Money from a previous fund was running dry and the big question was would Congress put up enough money to compensate victims and their families. First responders made multiple trips to Capitol Hill, lobbying to replenish the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.

On one particular trip in June, which may have been what tipped the balance in favor of first responders and those who were sickened, former NYPD Detective Luis Alvarez delivered powerful testimony before Congress just weeks before he died of a 9/11-related illness. He went to Washington not for himself — his payment had already been made — but for the people who would become sick after him, reporter Peter Haskell said.

"You all said you would never forget, well I'm here to make sure that you don't," he told lawmakers.

Sitting next to Alvarez in the hearing room was comedian Jon Stewart, who delivered his own powerful and passionate testimony following an emotional moment in the hallway where he was given the turnout coat of FDNY legend Ray Pfeifer.

"They responded in five seconds, they did their jobs with courage, grace, tenacity, humility -- 18 years later, do yours," he demanded of lawmakers.

The bill was passed and in July, President Donald Trump signed the “Never Forget the Heroes Act.”

"First responders from across the country rushed to New York and worked endless days and sleepless nights," Trump said during the signing ceremony where he was surrounded by more than 60 first responders. "They fought to rescue every person trapped in the rubble and then searched for months to find the remains of the fallen. The love and loyalty of our 9/11 responders knew no bounds."

Crisis On City Streets

When asked about the big story he covered this year, reporter Steve Burns said we're reaching crisis state in the case of our city streets getting more dangerous for pedestrians and especially cyclists.

Last year, the number of cyclists killed on New York City streets was 10. This year that number has nearly tripled to 29 and advocates are saying things need to change to protect cyclists.

New York City cyclist

The city launched its Vision Zero initiative years ago and Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the “Streets Master Plan” into law last month, committing to building 250 miles of protective bike lanes in the city over five years starting in late 2021. 

But with a finite amount of space on the roads that has to be shared among pedestrians, cyclists, buses and cars some may argue that the city may have grown stagnant in its efforts. 

The big question is what can we blame for the rise in cyclist fatalities and there really isn't one clear answer. Eleven happened after dark, seven occurred during rush hour, nine during the middle of the day, two cyclists were killing after crashing into open car doors, two were struck by hit and run drivers, 10 were hit by trucks, one was killed by a drunk driver. The youngest victim was 10 and the oldest was 87. There's no common thread, which is frustrating when trying to find a solution, Burns reported.

The Race For The White House

New York City mayors, both past and present, made national headlines as they set their sights on the White House. Veteran City Hall reporter Rich Lamb covered both Mayor Bill de Blasio's failed 2020 bid and the recent entry of former three-term Mayor Michael Bloomberg

Bloomberg joined the race in late November and has already outspent more any of the Democrats have in the race and one of the polls already has him at 7%. Lamb says what he's trying to do is position himself as a successful business man and political businessman.

Michael Bloomberg

His opponents are highly critical of him saying that he's trying to buy the election. As Lamb reports, Bloomberg's money is both an advantage and disadvantage. The 77-year-old former Republican can buy ads across the country and hope to build a momentum of goodwill, creating his own image, but a lot of young Democratic voters don't like the billionaire who's in the White House now and aren't so sure about the billionaire who's trying to move him out.

He's committed $100 million to anti-Trump campaign ads and has committed further millions on voter registration campaigns in battleground states.

He tried this before in 2016 and backed off, later endorsing Hillary Clinton.

In September, de Blasio announced he was ending his 2020 presidential campaign.

The mayor joined the primary in May and had trouble gaining support, polling at one percent or less in most national polls during his four months in the race.

He didn't have the money or support lined up, but he really believed he had a base in some states because of his record as a mayor in New York City.

Jeffrey Epstein

One of the most gripping stories came out of nowhere and came to a crashing end at incredible speed. Friend to the rich and powerful, Jeffrey Epstein, seemed to escape serious sex assault charges with a slap on the wrist 10 years ago in Florida until this summer when he was arrested at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey on federal sex trafficking charges by New York authorities.

From indictment to suicide, the whole saga played out in a matter of weeks.

Epstein was charged in July with sexually abusing underage girls. His lawyer offered to post $600 million bond so Epstein could live with a monitoring bracelet in his Upper East Side, but a judge denied the request over the possibility that the hedge fund manager could flee. He was ordered back to the Metropolitan Detection Center where he attempted suicide. Epstein was then given a roommate, former Briarcliff Manor Officer Nicholas Tartaglione, who was charged with the murders of four people. For unknown reasons, Epstein was taken out of Tartaglione's cell and off suicide watch.

The 66-year-old financier hung himself in his cell on Aug. 10, leaving many unanswered questions.

Attorney General William Barr said in a statement that he was "appalled" to learn of Epstein's death while in federal custody. 

Jeffrey Epstein

In wake of the suicide, it was revealed that there was severe under staffing at the correctional facility and inhumane conditions. Two guards who were supposed to be watching Epstein on the night he died allegedly falsified prison records to say they had checked on Epstein, but prosecutors say they never did. According to an indictment, they were shopping online and sleeping instead of making rounds.

The two were accused in of neglecting their duties by failing to check on Epstein for nearly eight hours, and of fabricating log entries to show they had been making checks every 30 minutes, as required.

A trial has been set for April.

Helicopter Crashes Into Manhattan High-Rise

Sometimes big news stories unfold over days and weeks, while others happen in an instant. That was the case on June 10 when a helicopter flying through heavy rain in restricted airspace crash landed on the roof of a high-rise building in Midtown Manhattan and erupted in flames, killing the pilot and forcing the evacuation of the 54-story skyscraper.

Kevin Rincon was covering a separate event with the governor when phones started buzzing with news of the crash.

"The first thing you start to think of is the worst case scenario when you hear plane crashed into a building in Midtown Manhattan. They actually locked us in that room for a couple of minutes to let the governor leave first who rushed to the scene. The governor even at that point had no clue what was going on," Rincon said.

The pilot, 58-year-old tim McCormack, left from the East 34th Street Heliport heading for Linden, New Jersey and went the wrong way into Midtown Manhattan, where he crashed into  the 750-foot-tall AXA Equitable building on Seventh Avenue near West 51st Street.

No one inside the building was harmed.

A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board found the pilot  was lost and flying in and out of clouds immediately before the crash. According to the report, McCormack did not have an instrument rating and did not report anything wrong with the aircraft.

The FAA noted that he did not have clearance to fly in anything besides "generally good weather."

Over the past dozen years, 17 people have been killed in helicopter crashes. There's been a legislative effort by New York Congress members who introduced the Improving Helicopter Safety Act in an effort to ban non-essential helicopters from flying in urban areas such as New York City. 

Preventing School Shootings

Sometimes the stories with the greatest impact are the ones about the efforts to prevent tragedies. Mack Rosenberg this year covered a story about what one New Jersey school district is doing to keep kids safe.

"Harrington Park. New Jersey decided to start installing bullet-proof doors beginning with this school year and they did it with the help of a man from Israel who came to America about 15 years ago, built a family for himself, has kids now who go to school in this district and he builds high-powered security doors that are meant for safe rooms in government buildings that he has seen in Israel," Rosenberg said. 

The superintendent of the school district reached out to him and had this proposition of trying to make the schools as safe as possible given the climate that we live in, where school shootings are far too common.

"This is the only thing that meets every code, protects the entire classroom - 20 something kids and the teacher - in seconds," said Omer Barnes, who founded REMO Security Doors out of Englewood Cliffs.

The doors are 150 pounds of galvanized steel and bullet resistant glass that can stop a handgun and slow down an AR-15. The doors also feature a 12-point locking system.

There Is Good News

The news can be depressing and sometimes you need some good news. Sophia Hall had one this year that came from a bagel store on Long Island.

Vinny Procia, the manager of Bagel 101, in Middle Island went the extra mile for one of his customers around the Thanksgiving holiday.

He was working a Saturday when he got a call form a frantic customer who left her key fob at his store. She had traveled to Pennsylvania for a "friendsgiving" celebration and could not make her way back home to Long Island without it. With overnight shipping service unavailable, Procia decided to take matters into his own hands, driving 10 hours roundtrip to deliver the key.

Vinny Procia and Diana Chong

"She sounded so distraught and stressed about not being able to get home and not being able to go to work. So I was like, 'Alright, send me the address, I'll drive them to you.' No hesitation," Procia said. "Helping the next person is doing God's work."

The customer paid for Procia's gas and tolls and gave him a gift card along with a thank you note, which came in handy when Procia got stopped for speeding coming back home to Long Island.

The officer let him go without a ticket after Procia showed him the card and told him the story.

Difference Makers

We met some truly special people along the way with Sean Adams with his weekly feature Stories From Main Street. The common thread is they're ordinary people doing extraordinary things. 

Brian Jaeger, from Hastings-on-Hudson, is among those who stand out. The 12-year-old hockey player started the charity “Stick Up To Cancer" in memory of his late aunt who died four years ago from cancer. He collects used hockey sticks and distributes them to underserved communities. 

His parents are also supporting the effort by donating $5 for each hockey stick he collects. An anonymous donor has agreed to match his parents’ contributions. The money donated will go towards the “Marla's Fund" to help literacy programs in the Edgemont School District.

Brian Jaeger - Stick Up To Cancer

Another "Difference Maker" is Billy Keenan a former high school teacher in Rockland County and Army veteran who is finding new ways to inspire others years after becoming paralyzed in a surfing accident. 

When Keenan was in the depths of despair in the hospital, he got a phone call from the late NYPD Detective Steven McDonald, who forgave the young man who shot and paralyzed him.

“Steven said to me, ‘Billy, there’s a reason why you’re alive. Your work is not done. God has a very special plan for you,’” Keenan said.

He took those words to heart and was determined to get back to teaching, which is exactly what he did. It was too much a demand on his body and had to retire in 2017, but he has since become a motivational speaker and now talks about overcoming adversity to school children, sports teams and charitable organizations. He also continues to spread McDonald's message of love and forgiveness.

Billy Keenan

Another story that generated a lot of interest has to do with FDNY Deputy Chief Frank Leeb, who is on a personal mission to protect firefighters.

Leeb says there’s been a sudden increase in occupational cancer with dozens of young firefighters getting sick from exposure to toxins on the job.

“Ten years past, you’d hear about firefighters getting cancer when they’re in the 70s, 80s and 90s.  Today, you hear about firefighters getting cancer in their 20s, 30s and 40s,” Leeb explains. “What’s burning in the house is different today than it was in the 1950s, when it was all natural-based fibers. Now a lot of stuff is petroleum-based products, there are a lot of plastics that are burning. So it's very different.”

Leeb says the FDNY is trying to move away from the image of a "salty firefighter."

FDNY Deputy Chief Frank Leeb

The new motto is, “Clean is the new Salty.”

The department is trying to put more emphasis on decontaminating and regularly washing and swapping out of gear.

Adams also highlighted the work of the World Trade Center Health Clinic at Mount Sinai, where he met Dr. Michael Crane who is devoted to caring for people who are becoming sick nearly two decades after the 9/11 attacks.

There are 76,000 first responders being checked out under his care and he estimates 90,000 should be in the program.

"I have this terrible, terrible thought every once in a while that there's a group of people who I don't know who are out there who have been exposed who are then going to come down with some type of rare tumor, things that are not even on the list we have, and they're going to go to doctors who are going to try to help them who are not going to make the connection between here and World Trade and they're not going to get the right care and that makes me crazy," Crane said.

The last Difference Maker Adams speaks about is a 97-year-old from Pompton Plains who is trying to achieve a dream he’s had for years: to sing the national anthem at Yankee Stadium in honor of his best friend — a Marine who died in Saipan at the age of 20.