Longtime but embattled New London firefighter set to retire

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New London — A longtime but embattled city firefighter will retire April 1 after a 2016 injury ended his career and left him fighting substance abuse and two court cases.

Risk Manager Paul Gills said officials were discussing retirement with Lt. Rocco Basilica, 53, when he was charged with having heroin at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital on Feb. 10, then charged with driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs in Groton City on Feb. 14.

Basilica has been suspended with pay since Feb. 17, pending the outcome of each case.

Back at L+M this week to treat an injured hip that previously was replaced, Basilica said Wednesday he had planned to work for the city until he was at least 57 and is frustrated to be sidelined from a job that was his life.

“I love my job and serving the city,” said Basilica, who also served 14 years as union president. “It’s just not the way I wanted my career to end.”

Basilica, named Firefighter of the Year by the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 2000 for saving a drowning man at Ocean Beach, has been a city firefighter since 1996 and was a Public Works employee for years before that.

But records show he hasn’t worked regular hours since last July. He was out on sick time from Aug. 5 until Nov. 29, when he was placed on “authorized leave with pay.” Authorized leave, which must be approved by the mayor, typically is for city employees who have workers’ compensation claims pending with CIRMA, the city’s insurance provider.

Mayor Michael Passero said employees use sick time while CIRMA determines the veracity of each claim. If a claim still is pending when an employee’s sick time runs out, he or she can end up on authorized leave, Passero said.

Gills said the city still is working with CIRMA to resolve some of Basilica’s pending claims. It also is working to determine future medical costs for Basilica, who sustained 31 verified, line-of-duty injuries over the course of his career, pending claims not included.

“That’s going to be six figures,” Gills said of the settlement the city is negotiating. “But my job is to ensure all workers’ comp claims are adjudicated fairly. All of (Basilica’s) injuries are legitimate ... and he’s entitled under statutes to benefits.”

While many of Basilica’s injuries still require occasional treatment, an October 2016 Achilles tendon tear — and complications from the surgery that followed — effectively ended his career.

Basilica said he, after responding to an evening kitchen fire at Mitchell College, was in full turnout gear and carrying tools when he misjudged a step, fell and ruptured his Achilles tendon. After surgery, he returned to the hospital for treatment of a staph infection and vein ablation in his leg. But his lower leg remains swollen to this day, and he sometimes needs a walker or cane to get around.

Since 2017, Basilica has been on work-related injury leave for 1,236 hours, sick leave for 1,038 hours and on authorized paid leave for 797 hours. He amassed just 420 hours’ regular pay during the same period, making disability retirement a clear choice, even if unwanted.

“It’s tough to give that up when you’ve done this your whole life, when you’re not prepared to do that,” Basilica said.

‘It’s all I ever wanted to do’

From a young age, Basilica said he wanted follow in the footsteps of his father, Anthony Basilica Sr., who also was a firefighter in New London.

“It’s all I ever wanted to do,” he said. “I loved it. I tried to do the best I could.”

Chief Tom Curcio said Basilica was commended many times over the course of his career.

Basilica helped rescue a victim from a basement fire on Rosemary Street in 1998. He hosted successful fire service presentations at Connecticut College in 2000 and for legislators in 2007. He was involved in minimizing damage from a fire at L+M in 2009. And he received recognition for a cold-water rescue at the Connecticut College Arboretum in 2015.

"What I can remember most is he always was cool, calm and collected," Curcio said. "And he had good instincts on the fire ground."

Curcio said Basilica, especially during his time as union president, often was in charge of keeping track of the firefighters on scene. But he also interacted with the public on ambulance calls, and they often commented on his stellar people skills.

"I know he wasn't planning on this, but it happens to a lot of firefighters — their careers are cut short because of injury or something else," Curcio said. "I wish him the best of luck in retirement."

Getting his life back

Basilica was hesitant Wednesday to go into many details of his situation and, on the advice of his attorney, declined to answer any questions about his pending criminal cases.

He did say he voluntarily sought out substance abuse treatment “to be on the cautious side” because of his use of pain medication and alcohol.

“I never had a problem before I got injured,” he said. “If you get injured as I did and get exposed to the pain medicine ... things happen from that, just as they always do.”

Working off memory, Basilica said in addition to a total hip replacement, he has had surgeries on both elbows, his knee, his nose and his vertebrae. The back injury, he said, occurred when he was carrying a patient down a flight of stairs.

“That was my first significant injury and from there, it went downhill,” Basilica said.

Records show the city has paid Basilica $292,580 in workers’ compensation-related costs since 1986. Gills said that’s because New London, with a $350,000 annual deductible, is “more or less self-insured.”

The city also has paid Basilica $31,701 in sick time and $24,425 in authorized paid leave since 2017.

Sidelined for months by the Achilles injury, Basilica began performing some private duty and union business in September 2017 but didn’t start receiving regular pay again until April 2018, records show. He said he returned after passing a physical agility and fitness test ordered by the city. He said he worked through summer last year until “I couldn’t do it anymore.”

“I’ve been through the wringer,” Basilica said.

He said he’s getting support from family and some co-workers and plans to stick with his treatment program “for as long as it takes.”

“I’m getting back to my normal life,” he said.

The pending cases

Police said Basilica had been in the orthopedics wing at L+M for several days when a nurse found 0.2 grams of heroin in his sweatpants on Feb. 10.

Basilica told hospital staff he was holding the substance for a friend and asked them to “just get rid of it.”

After learning of a warrant charging him with misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance, Basilica turned himself in to police Feb. 19. He was processed and released on a $1,000 bond.

Groton City police said they charged Basilica with drunken driving Feb. 14 after finding him passed out behind the wheel of his white SUV at the Bridge Street Package Store.

Police said they also saw keys in the console and an empty alcoholic beverage container in the backseat of his SUV, whose front left tire was on top of the sidewalk.

Police said Basilica, a Montville resident, said he was in Groton because his son works nearby. Basilica, who largely was incoherent, told police he had taken Percocet and had a couple beers before getting to the lot.

A test of his eyes indicated “a high level of alcohol content.” Police said he was unable to stay standing long enough to complete the walking portion of the field sobriety test.

Police took him to the station, where they carried him inside to await medical personnel.

Basilica was released on a promise to appear in court in the Groton case.

He is due to enter a plea in both cases in New London Superior Court on April 3.

l.boyle@theday.com

g.smith@theday.com

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