Racist and sexist epithets scrawled across a firehouse door greeted two female firefighters as they reported to work Tuesday -- just weeks after City Council authorized sensitivity training to restore harmony in the department.
The discovery happened about 6:30 a.m. at Fire Station 54 at Intercontinental Airport, a station that the president of the Houston Black Firefighter's Association said previously has suffered vandalism in the women's quarters.
"This is a very painful day," said Executive Assistant Fire Chief Rick Flanagan. "This is without a doubt an act of hate. ... It is so distasteful, so painful, so despicable. We have the full support of the police department, and we have asked them to expedite this investigation."
Flanagan did not reveal the content of the graffiti, nor identify the female firefighters, one of whom is white, the other black.
Fire Chief Phil Boriskie said the case has been referred to the city's office of the inspector general.
"This is a terminating offense and, frankly, a criminal offense," he said. "We will prosecute this to the fullest."
Mayor Bill White said the city will not tolerate any form of racial or gender discrimination.
"Before we judge and generalize," he added, "we need to get the facts. ... We will get to the bottom of it."
Boriskie cautioned that the perpetrator may not have been a firefighter. Flanagan, however, noted that only those with FAA clearance have access to the fire station, where 10-12 firefighters are assigned to handle aircraft emergencies.
Activist wants chief fired
Tuesday's episode came just weeks after City Council approved $60,000 for firefighter sensitivity training. That measure was aimed at calming racial tension in the department that grew out of the discovery of a noose-like knot in the locker of veteran fire Capt. Keith Smith.
Smith told city officials the rope was a fisherman's knot he had kept in honor of the firefighter who showed him how to tie it.
But black activists decried it as an emblem of overt racism, and one, Deric Muhammad, called for Boriskie's resignation.
Muhammad renewed that call Tuesday, saying, "Only strong leadership can root out the cancer of racism in the Houston Fire Department."
Flanagan on Tuesday said the Smith case was resolved by "putting a note in his permanent file."
City Councilwoman Jolanda Jones, who advocated for sensitivity training and suggested it be extended to other departments, Tuesday said the U.S. Justice Department might be better equipped to investigate the graffiti incident.
"I think there is more than graffiti. I absolutely have reason to believe there may be retaliation for something," she said.
Fire Capt. Otis Jordan, president of the black firefighter's group, said women's quarters at Station 54 previously had been targeted by vandals. Recently, he said, one of the women targeted in Tuesday's incident had filed a complaint after someone disconnected the cold water in the women's shower.
Jordan also said someone had urinated in the sinks and on the walls of the women's restroom.
"We are not going to stand for our sisters -- or a white female -- being treated that way," Jordan said.
Jordan said he received a tearful telephone call from one of the firefighters shortly after she discovered the offensive graffiti.
Flanagan on Tuesday said he has assigned a team to check Jordan's allegations and to find out what, if anything, was done to address them.
Pastor calls for calm
Speaking at a morning news conference alongside fire department leaders, the Rev. James Nash, pastor of the predominantly black St. Paul Baptist Church, called for calm as the investigation continues and criticized "factions in the community who want conflict."
Jeffrey Caynon, president of the nearly 4,000-member Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, denounced "reckless stereotyping of the men and women of all races of the HFD by opportunist activists and self-appointed 'labor' organizations that inflame emotions but rarely offer solutions."
In an afternoon news conference, Muhammad said he interpreted the graffiti as a death threat.
Fire department officials Tuesday said the graffiti incident left them badly shaken.
Boriskie described himself as "angry, embarrassed and bothered."
Flanagan, who is black, said he has experienced few days of bitterness in the 30-plus years he's spent with the department.
"This," he said, "is one of those days."
Chronicle reporters Bradley Olson and Allen Reed contributed to this report.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service