New York police, fire commissioners rebut charges that recovery effort being scaled down

Monday, November 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ The city's police and fire commissioners defended their departments against charges by some union officials that they're scaling down efforts to recover the remains of attack victims at the World Trade Center site.

At a news conference Sunday night, Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen called the charges ``unfair and dishonest.''

Hundreds of firefighters came out Friday to protest a change in city policy that limits the number of firefighters and police officers helping in the recovery effort to 25 from each department. At times the number had been as large as 150.

Firefighters tangled with police as they tried to march past a barricade near the trade center. Five police officers were injured and more than a dozen firefighters were arrested.

Firefighters fear the new policy will turn the recovery effort into essentially a construction site. Of the 343 firefighters lost in the trade center, more than 200 of them, along with thousands of civilians and other uniformed officers, are still buried in the rubble.

City officials said there were safety and health hazards in having large numbers of firefighters searching through debris in the midst of cranes and excavation equipment.

``This is so harmful to the families of the civilians killed,'' Von Essen said of the dispute. ``They must be thinking, 'What's going on with these people?'''

Earlier Sunday, the head of a city fire officers union was charged with trespassing in connection with the rally on Friday. Capt. Peter Gorman became the second union leader arrested over the weekend on charges related to the rally.

Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, pleaded innocent to the misdemeanor charge.

In a telephone interview after his arraignment, he said: ``I am absolutely outraged. Two of my young firefighters were lost (Sept. 11), and there was a memorial visitation this afternoon. Instead, Mayor (Rudolph) Giuliani hauled me to court.''

Kevin Gallagher, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, was charged late Saturday with trespassing in connection with the protest.

At a news conference Sunday at police headquarters, police Commissioner Bernard Kerik harshly criticized the firefighters who participated in the scuffle, as well as union officials who have fanned the flames with rhetoric.

Kerik told reporters he has reviewed police department and media tapes as well as photos of the rally, and the investigation continues. But those who broke the law, he said, will be prosecuted.

He said he had personally authorized firefighters to march down to City Hall, but that they then spontaneously decided to go to ground zero, which is ``a frozen area. We all know that. It's not a protesting site. There are people working there.''

A CNN spokeswoman confirmed Sunday that the news outlet had received a request from the New York Police Department for footage.