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NYC firefighters scuffle with NYPD at WTC site

by DAN BARRY and KEVIN FLYNN Sunday, Nov. 04, 2001 at 1:32 PM
(taken from NYC-IMC wire)

a very sad story. goes to show how the state can really interupt in human loss and grieving

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

THE FIREFIGHTERS

Firefighters in Angry Scuffle With Police at

Trade Center

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

with.

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

peacefully."

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

construction workers.

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

injuries."

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

families."

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