Firefighters in Angry Scuffle With Police at Trade Center
by By DAN BARRY and KEVIN FLYNN 2:29pm Sat Nov 3 '01 (Modified on 2:46pm Sat Nov 3 '01)
A brief but emotionally wrenching scuffle broke out yesterday morning between New York City firefighters and police officers at the World Trade Center disaster site.
November 3, 2001
Firefighters in Angry Scuffle With Police at
By DAN BARRY and KEVIN FLYNN
A brief but emotionally wrenching scuffle broke out yesterday morning between
New York City firefighters and police officers at the World Trade Center disaster site. A dozen
firefighters were arrested and five police officers were injured in the incident, which
rattled the city's top officials and laid bare the frustrations of the living who are unable
to bury their dead.
What began as a demonstration by several hundred firefighters to protest a reduction in
the number of firefighters permitted at the site turned into a jagged succession of
awkward moments - some ugly, some poignant. One moment punches were being
thrown in a melee between firefighters and police officers; the next, hundreds of
firefighters were chanting their appreciation for the very officers they had just grappled
The two-hour protest concluded outside City Hall, where dozens of helmeted police
officers, some on horseback, prepared for more trouble as firefighters called for the
ousters of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen and
demanded the right to retrieve the remains of dead colleagues. Later, Mr. Giuliani
emphasized that few bodies remained to be recovered.
"Bring our brothers home!" they shouted, referring to the 250 firefighters still buried in
the rubble after the Sept. 11 attack. "Bring our brothers home!"
The shoving match between the firefighting force, which lost 343 of its members on
Sept. 11, and the police force, which lost 23 in the same awful event, was like the
eruption of a familial brawl at a never-ending wake. Commissioner Von Essen
apologized; Police Commissioner Bernard B. Kerik bristled; and Mayor Giuliani was
the understanding but determined father.
After acknowledging that "emotions are very, very high for all of us," and
noting that "we all have lost people that we love," the mayor called the
firefighters' actions unacceptable. "You can't hit police officers," he said.
"You can't disobey the law, and you have to have enough professionalism
and dignity about yourself to not conduct yourself in that way. No matter
how bad you feel, no matter how much you feel like crying, and no matter
how much you feel like venting your emotions."
Last night, the bickering among the city's uniformed officers had not abated,
and the potential for further confrontation remained. Seven firefighters, four
ranking fire officers and one fire marshal were being held at the 28th Precinct
station house in central Harlem. As of early today, charges that included
trespassing, disorderly conduct and obstruction of governmental
administration had been prepared against 10 of those arrested, according to
the Barbara Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney's
office. She said that no charges were being filed against the other two.
At the center of the emotions and frustrations exposed yesterday is the site
itself: the slowly diminishing pile of rubble, acres wide and several floors
deep. Thousands of people are believed to have died, many of them
apparently reduced to dust, when the terrorist attack caused the twin towers
to collapse. It is a construction site, but it is also a grave site.
In the beginning, the Fire Department was in charge of the site, and its
members had complete access; they put out fires and searched for survivors
who were never found. The search-and-rescue operations eventually ended,
though, and firefighters dedicated themselves to finding the remains of their
dead colleagues and carrying them away with dignity. It is part of their code.
But the Giuliani administration, heeding the advice of safety experts, has been
reducing the number of firefighters permitted at the site, where swinging
girders and rumbling backhoes pose a danger, and where many workers
have developed chronic chest pains and coughing fits. On Wednesday, the
city announced that only 25 firefighters would be assigned to the recovery of
remains, down from 64 at the time.
Officials for the two unions that represent uniformed firefighters said this
latest reduction set off feelings of hurt and betrayal among many firefighters.
They felt that the city was treating hallowed ground as just another
construction site, the officials said; that the mayor wanted the site tidied up
by Dec. 31, when his tenure ends; that city officials seem to care more about
removing the hoards of gold and silver underneath the trade center than they
do about removing human remains.
Mr. Giuliani said he felt "really, really bad" that his efforts to ensure safety at
the site had been distorted by "certain people." He also emphasized that
firefighters and police officers would continue to be assigned to the site, and
that the city was determined to "recover the maximum number of human
remains that we can recover."
On Thursday afternoon, Deputy Mayor Anthony P. Coles and the leaders of
the two firefighters' unions, representing about 11,500 men and women, met
at City Hall to discuss the growing tensions, but little was resolved. Fire
Capt. Peter L. Gorman, the president of the Uniformed Fire Officers
Association, recalled telling Mr. Coles that firefighters and grieving families
were very upset, and that a demonstration was going to take place with or
without union support. "I told them the prudent thing to do was to prevent it,"
Mr. Coles said yesterday.
That night, the union leaders faxed a notice to their members: there would be
a demonstration on Friday morning to protest the city's decision to turn the
trade center site into what one union announcement called a "full-time
construction scoop and dump operation."
Shortly before midnight Thursday, Mr. Von Essen received a call from
Mayor Giuliani, who was at the World Series but wondering about talk of a
demonstration. "I told him they jacked up a lot of families and they're going
to have a demonstration at the site," Mr. Von Essen recalled.
City officials said yesterday that they knew the approaching protest would be
uncomfortable but did not expect violence. In fact, police officials said they
had been assured by union officials that the protesters would remain behind
the barricades surrounding the disaster site.
The demonstration, which began at the corner of West and Chambers Streets,
could have been just another airing of union gripes if it were not for that central issue of
death and missing human remains.
Mike Heffernan, a firefighter, told the crowd of the great relief that comes when a family
recovers the body of a loved one - as his did on Oct. 1 when the remains of John
Heffernan, his brother and a firefighter, were found and buried.
Then Bill Butler, a retired fire captain, spoke. "My son Tommy, from Squad 1, is
still in that building, and we haven't gotten to him yet," he said, urging everyone to
challenge the decision to cut back on the Fire Department presence at the site.
Soon the streets resounded with chants. "Bring Tommy home!" "Bring the brothers
home!" "They took the gold out!"
And, in an appeal to halt work at the site in deference to the firefighters: "Shut 'em
down, shut 'em down!"
Kevin E. Gallagher, the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, raised
his bullhorn and addressed the dozens of police officers who had been casually
watching the protest unfold. "Please allow us to walk to the site in a dignified manner," he
said. "Some of you officers have also lost brothers. Walk with us, and we'll go
The protesters pushed aside a steel fence and began marching south down West
Street, closer to the disaster site, while police officers watched, as if taken aback. It
was not until the protesters pressed against a second barricade that matters turned ugly.
Punches were thrown, profanities exchanged. People either fell or were pushed to the
ground. Police officers grabbed whom they could and, after
brief struggles, slapped on handcuffs. Then the scuffling ended almost as
quickly as it had begun, and the police officers stepped aside.
Mr. Gallagher also thanked the police, but not before vowing to rouse
thousands more protesters - including "brothers from other cities" - if the
protests were ignored. The protesters then filed out of the restricted area,
through an impromptu honor guard created by dozens of applauding
Hundreds of protesters continued on to City Hall, where dozens of police
officers were gathering.
Nervous city officials watched from behind the fences that surround City
Hall. "Rudy must go!" the firefighters shouted. And "Tom must go!" And
"Bring our brothers home!"
By 12:30 p.m., the protest had petered out. Some firefighters went to a bar
on Nassau Street; others headed to work. On the J train bound for Queens,
for example, Larry Mooney tried to explain the emotions.
"They want to pull out people with cranes," he said. "We want to bring back
the brothers with dignity. They think the quicker they can clean it, the better
they look. We've got friends there, brothers and family. We've known these
guys for years. This goes very deep."
Such sentiments did little to mollify Mr. Kerik, who said fire union officials
had assured the police that they were planning a peaceful protest. "We didn't
anticipate that they would pick up and flip the barricades on top of the cops,"
he said, sounding betrayed. "We didn't anticipate that they would punch
police officers in the face. We didn't anticipate the behavior that came out of
the demonstration. As a result, we have five police officers injured; two with
black eyes and trauma to the face, three with neck, shoulder and back
Last night, union officials snapped back. They said police supervisors at the
scene had provoked the scuffling.
"Unfortunately, not everybody's cooler heads prevailed, all right?" Mr.
Gallagher said. "It was over 1,000 firefighters there; they were emotionally
strained. They were drained from what they've been doing over the last
seven and eight weeks. Basically, all they want to do is what's right for the