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Mary Wolski, Pennsylvania Firefighter, Wins Job Back After Failed Suicide Fire

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An undated photo of Mary Wolski.
An undated photo of Mary Wolski.

ERIE, Pa. -- A federal jury in Pennsylvania has ruled in favor of Mary Wolski, a former Erie firefighter who was axed for setting a bathtub fire in a botched suicide attempt. The eight-person jury found the city violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it fired Wolski nearly five years ago and ordered her rehired with more than $200,000 in back pay.

Questions linger about the safety of the community now that the confessed fire-setter will return to her job.

"My client is thrilled with the verdict. She loves her job as a firefighter and can't wait to rejoin the fire department," Wolski's attorney, Paul Susko, told The Huffington Post.

U.S. District Judge Sean J. McLaughlin ordered that the city reinstate Wolski, 49, with seniority and pay her $206,665 in back pay and expenses related to her termination. He also ordered the city on Monday to immediately begin paying Wolski her normal salary.

"Reinstatement of Firefighter Wolski to the department should be welcomed and serve as an occasion of pride -- pride that an extremely dedicated and capable professional, who loves the department, has clawed her way back from the depths of depression and quite literally from death's door, and is now ready to serve the people of the city of Erie again," McLaughlin said in court.

Not everyone is convinced the jury made the right decision.

The Americans With Disabilities Act, Assistant City Solicitor Gerald Villella said, according to the Erie Times-News, was meant to "remove barriers for people who need a little help fitting in," and not for "something like this."

Pat Brown, founder of the Pat Brown Criminal Profiling Agency, concurred. "I think the court's decision is outrageous. I agree with Villella that the ADA laws were to remove barriers for people who have disabilities, not for people who commit criminal acts and to put them back into an employment situation of trust in which their coworkers and citizens must depend on them to make safe and responsible decisions," Brown said.

A date for Wolski's return to the Erie Fire Department has not yet been set. Susko said she will likely be reinstated when a current firefighter retires.

Wolski's lawsuit stemmed from a Dec. 28, 2006, incident inside her father's vacant Erie home. According to Susko, a depressed Wolski set fire to clothes in the bathtub in an attempt to commit suicide by inhaling smoke.

"She had developed major depression about a year-and-a-half to two years before her attempted suicide, because of her mother's protracted, ugly death from MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) and a bunch of other surgeries," Susko said.

Wolski extinguished the blaze before firefighters, who were summoned by her family, arrived. Wolski was then transported to a hospital in Pittsburgh, where she was treated for smoke inhalation.

Susko said that at the time of the suicide attempt, Wolski had been taking six anti-depressants prescribed by her psychiatrist.

Wolski, a lifelong resident of Erie, made local history in 1997, when she was the first woman to be hired as an Erie firefighter.

In a March 1997 interview with the Erie Times-News, Wolski, then 34, said she considered the job a "gift from God."

"I always wanted to be in a profession where I could help people ... The 'first woman' thing is just the way it happened. I didn't want to get on [the department) because I was a woman. This was something I needed to earn," Wolski said.

Following her botched suicide attempt, Wolski was prescribed a new medication. In March 2007, her doctors said she was clear to return to work.

Brad Foulk, the district attorney at the time, decided not to file charges. He noted Wolski had extinguished the fire and said no one from her family was willing to press charges against her.

Despite the lack of criminal charges and the fact that doctors said she was cleared for duty, Wolski was fired on April 11, 2007.

"This incident renders you presumptively unsuited to be a firefighter, as you pose an ongoing threat to the safety of the public, other firefighters and yourself," Fire Chief Tony Pol wrote in a termination letter to Wolski.

Erie Civil Service Commission Chairman Daniel Tempestini wrote at the time, "Her setting a fire ... is the single most significant act a firefighter may not commit. The act of establishing a fire in a residence is wholly incompatible with the role of the firefighter, despite the mitigating circumstances of Ms. Wolski's psychological state."

In November 2008, Susko filed a complaint in federal court on behalf of Wolski, which stated her termination violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

When the lawsuit finally went to trial last week, Susko argued that the city failed to make an individualized assessment of Wolski's condition. He asserted that the city fired his client because she suffered from severe depression.

The city argued Wolski was fired because she had set the fire in her father's home -- something that city officials alleged was unbecoming of a public safety employee. Villella said Wolski should not be reinstated because it would hurt morale and damage the public's trust in the fire department.

"Their own firefighter set a fire ... she put other firefighters in danger ... she wasn't suited to be a firefighter because she did something wrong ... not because of a disability," Villella said, according to Yourerie.com.

At one point, the fire chief took the stand to defend Wolski's firing.

"Once a firefighter sets a fire, he [or she] can no longer be a firefighter," PoI said.

Susko called several experts to testify on his client's behalf.

"There was expert testimony offered that she has recovered, she's well, that there are no impediments to her returning to the fire department," the defense attorney said. "That was the opinion of three different professionals -- two psychiatrists and her psychotherapist."

Susko added, "The city was trying to separate [the bathtub fire] from the severe depression that she was experiencing and the six anti-depressants that were in her system at the time."

The jury listened to four days of testimony. On Monday, they reached the verdict.

"I'm thrilled, you know. It has been a very long, ugly road for everybody, you know. I'm glad, hopeful I can go back to doing what I love and everything will be OK. I have to go back and prove myself. I lost a lot of trust. So it matters that I go back and build it up again," Wolski said after the verdict, according to Erietvnews.com.

The Fire Department declined to discuss the ruling and referred calls to the city solicitor. Villella did not return calls for comment.

Susko said the city has indicated it may appeal.

Asked whether citizens of Erie should be concerned about Wolski returning to her job as a firefighter, Susko said they have nothing to worry about.

"She's recovered almost completely and only takes one anti-depressant. [She] doesn't need a psychiatrist [and] doesn't need counseling anymore. She's able to function quite well," Susko said.

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