NEW YORK — The storied New York Fire Department may have to pay as much as $128 million to non-white job applicants that a federal judge ruled were denied entry because of discrimination.

In his ruling on Thursday, Judge Nicholas Garaufis of Brooklyn federal court said that some 2,200 black and Hispanic former applicants were owed back pay for jobs they could have been awarded had the entrance exam not been slanted toward whites.

He also ordered the hiring of 186 black and 107 Latino applicants.

The department has long been about 90 percent white and allegedly was kept that way in a racially diverse city by an applicant screening process deliberately designed to discourage blacks and Hispanics, according to the lawsuit.

Before compensation can be paid out, a marathon legal process will have to be undertaken to see how much each eligible applicant would have earned had he been accepted as a firefighter.

The final figure of the payout, which affects applicants in the 1999 and 2002 screening tests, may therefore be less.

"The amount of damages that the city is ultimately liable for may be reduced substantially from the total amount listed through the course of the individual proceedings. The exact extent of the city's liability for monetary damages will be known when these proceedings are complete," the judge wrote.

Thundering around on immaculately maintained red trucks, the city's so-called "bravest" are local heroes, admired for their professionalism and lauded for their self-sacrifice on 9/11, when 343 died in the collapsing Twin Towers.

With generous pay, pension and vacation, the job is seen as a highly attractive way to enter the middle class.

But the discrimination trial in Brooklyn challenged the FDNY's reputation.

A quarter of New York's population is black and 27 percent Hispanic, but just 3.4 percent of firefighters are black and 6.7 percent Latino, the plaintiffs, who include a group of black firefighters, say.

Garaufis chided New York City authorities, which he said "had many opportunities to avoid financial liability" over the fire department scandal.

"The city has been aware of the disparate impact of its entry-level firefighter exams since at least 1973," he wrote.

The penalties being imposed "are consequences of the city's decision to ignore clear violations of federal law."

However, on Friday, Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano again denied that racism had been to blame for the markedly skewed racial make-up of the FDNY.

"I've disagreed with the judge all along. If you study hard and you take the exam and you pass, it's the fairest way to get on the department," he said on NY1 television.

"I disagree with his ruling of intentional discrimination. I've been in the department 42 years, I've never seen intentional discrimination," Cassano said.

During the trial, black firefighters had testified about racist behavior in some firehouses.

However, defenders of the department have said that the main reason its ranks are so dominated by whites is a broader city culture in which several generations within the same family often follow each other into the job.

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Photo by Hu Totya via Wikimedia Commons