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Most serious charges dropped against firefighters who tangled with police at trade center site


NEW YORK (AP) _ The most serious charges were dropped Saturday against 10 firefighters who tangled with police as they protested at the World Trade Center disaster site about changes in the handling of the recovery effort.

Hundreds of firefighters marched past police manning barricades around ground zero on Friday, some scuffling with the officers, in a protest of the mayor's decision to scale back the number of people searching for victims in the wreckage of the trade center.

Once inside the cordoned off area, the firefighters held a moment of silence. Kevin Gallagher, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, spoke to the crowd from atop a muddy bulldozer decorated with an American flag.

``Let's bring our brothers back to our families, where they should be,'' he shouted.

The protest came after Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced a new policy limiting the number of firefighters working at the site to 25 at a time. He said the high number of workers digging amid heavy equipment had become increasingly dangerous.

``We were given very, very strong advice that this site was a disaster waiting to happen,'' Giuliani said. ``Our concern has to be for the lives of the people who are working there now.''

But firefighters said more than 200 of their comrades are still buried in the rubble and they want enough firefighters on the scene to recover the remains and treat them with dignity.

``We don't want to find remains in the Fresh Kills landfill,'' said Capt. Peter Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, speaking at a news conference.

``You wouldn't excavate a cemetery or sacred burial ground like that. Why would you do that with 5,000 citizens of this country buried down there?''

Friday's scene was a sharp change from the mood of unity and cooperation that the city had seen since Sept. 11, with police and firefighters working shoulder to shoulder and everyone rallying around Giuliani and the police and fire commissioners.

Five police officers were injured during the protest, Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik said, adding that there could be more arrests. The 10 firefighters arraigned Saturday _ including three union officials _ were charged with criminal trespassing. Some were also charged with obstructing governmental administration and harassment. Earlier charges of inciting to riot, a felony, were dropped.

All charges were also dropped against two other firefighters arrested Friday.

Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen later apologized to the injured officers on behalf of the fire department.

As police in riot gear looked on, many firefighters who had moved the protest to City Hall demanded that Von Essen resign over the new policy. Hundreds chanted ``Bring our brothers home,'' and many waved American flags.

The two unions in April gave Von Essen no-confidence votes. They have accused him of a dictatorial style that has destroyed morale, and believe he has not stuck up for the rank-and-file despite being a firefighter for more than 20 years and once the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, which sponsored the rally.

Firefighter Bob McGuire, whose nephew Richard Allen is missing in the rubble, asserted that remains had been loaded into trash bins in the past two days. ``I don't want him to end up in a dumpster,'' McGuire said.
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