Firefighters protested a plan to scale back the number of fire and police personnel searching for remains at the World Trade Center site., Friday Nov. 2, 2001.
Citing a growing rift with the city and fire department over staffing at the World Trade Center site, the Memorial Service for the 343 fallen firefighters and paramedics in New York scheduled for Nov. 18 was called off Wednesday by the International Association of Firefighters and its New York affiliates. The city and FDNY followed the announcement accusing the unions of spreading misinformation.
IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger told Firehouse.com that the treatment, specifically from the Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and FDNY Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, dictated that there was no chance of the rift being solved and that the Nov. 18 service was definitely off.
"Given the concern felt by the widows of our fallen brothers and thousands of New York fire fighters and fire officers about the city’s callous actions over the last week, we believe it is impossible to hold a memorial service at this time that would bring people together to embrace the families, promote healing, and build unity," Schaitberger said.
A make up date for the service was not announced.
"We plan to hold a service at a later date with new city leadership that will be more sensitive to the emotions of all of those whose loved ones and colleagues are still entombed at the World Trade Center site," he said.
Specifically, the Commissioner and Mayor cut the number of firefighters working at ground zero, recovering bodies as they were uncovered in the cleanup effort, to 25. At times the number had been as large as 150. Firefighters protested said it was not enough to do a thorough job and bodies would be loaded and dumped in the landfill where all rubble from the site is being taken.
FDNY Says It Requested Postponement
But a terse statement from the FDNY blamed the union for allowing politics to play a role in the announcement. The Department said it asked for the postponement due to concern for the families, not the events at Ground Zero over the past week.
"[The announcement] clearly shows that the absolute last priority of this union (the IAFF) is the families who are involved," the statement said. "We asked the union to postpone the event because a majority of the families let us know they clearly thought it was too soon to have a memorial service. Instead, the unions use it as an excuse to inflame and misinform once again. They should be ashamed of themelves."
Giuliani said recommendations of safety experts and avoiding further injuries as rationale behind the staffing reduction. "This dangerous operation must be carried out with discipline and due regard for the health and safety of everyone involved -- even if some people have lost perspective and argue for throwing caution to the wind," he said in a statement released Wednesday night.
"It is a shame that the unions would cancel a memorial service and spread misinformation to the public regrading the City's efforts to recover the remains of those lost in the World Trade Center attack," Giuliani said. "The Fire Commission will continue to assess the need for an expanded complement of firefighters on the scene and has, for example, doubled the number to ensure that there will be a maximum effort to recover all human remains possible."
The Uniformed Firefighters Association Local 94 (UFA) and the Uniformed Fire Officers Association Local 854 (UFOA) played a role in the postponement decision.
No New Date Announced
The Memorial Service had been expected to be the largest gathering of firefighters and rescue workers in history and had been dubbed a 'historic partnership between the city, the fire department and IAFF union leaders' to stage the memorial, Schaitberger said when the service was first announced.
Schaitberger said that they would be planning a new memorial service after the new administration took over New York City Hall. Media mogul Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, beat the city's elected public advocate, Democrat Mark Green, in the race to succeed term-limited Giuliani in Tuesday’s election. Schaitberger would not speculate when a service might be resceduled.
Schaitberger said the fellow firefighters nationwide who had made plans to attend the memorial would have to deal with the situation noting most airlines would probably be willing to reschedule tickets and hotels would honor a cancellation 48 hours prior to arrival. "Our members will stand by the wishes and needs of the people here."
Many hotels in the immediate downtown area around Madison Square Garden have been sold out since the announcement of the Memorial Service about two weeks ago.
On forums at Firehouse.com and in discussions elsewhere, firefighters were encouraging some of those with reservations to keep their plans to come to New York -- to attend funeral and memorial services for the fallen FDNY members that may be scheduled during the four-day period of Nov. 16-19.
Ron Siarnicki, Director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation said, "the NFFF understands the concern the memorial service planners have for the families of the New York City fallen firefighters."
"We are committed to ensure those heroes are never forgotten and that the survivors receive the support and assistance they need," Siarnicki said. "The Foundation stands ready to assist the memorial service planners once the new date has been established."
From the IAFF Statement:
"How can we ask our widows, our fire fighters and their families to show respect for the mayor and the fire commissioner," UFOA President Peter Gorman said, "when they are arresting our union leaders and fire fighters in small groups each day to maximize their smear campaign in the media?" Schaitberger said.
"The fire fighters of FDNY, the widows of our fallen brothers, and thousands of civilians expect the bodies of the fallen fire fighters, police officers, and civilians to be removed from that site in a dignified manner, not dumped with debris in a Staten Island landfill," Schaitberger said.
"This is absolutely unacceptable and it would be hypocritical for us to stand at a memorial service with a mayor and a fire commissioner who are robbing the families of our fallen fire fighters and other victims of their dignity," Schaitberger continued.
"Our members are still grieving," UFA President Kevin Gallagher said. "Our people were traumatized once on Sept. 11 and they have been re-traumatized in the last few days. In the memory of our fallen brothers and in honor of their grieving families, we must postpone the Memorial service."
The decision came after meetings between IAFF President Schaitberger, IAFF Secretary-Treasurer Vincent Bollon, UFA President Gallagher, and UFOA President Peter Gorman. They cited widespread resentment among widows and New York fire fighters about the city’s arbitrary decision to reduce by 75 percent the number of fire fighters working at the World Trade Center site, preventing them from recovering the bodies of their fallen brothers and other victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, and the overreaction by the police commissioner to a fire fighter rally last Friday that resulted in unwarranted arrests.
"The service we had planned in partnership with the City and the Fire Department of New York was meant to be a healing and unifying event," Schaitberger said. "It was meant to recognize and celebrate the heroism, service and sacrifice of our New York fire fighters and their families. Sadly, we believe that the city and FDNY’s draconian actions over the last week have proven that no partnership exists. They have made it impossible for the healing process to begin."
Fire fighters in New York are still mourning the loss of 343 of their brothers -- an unprecedented loss for a department and a profession that faces danger on a daily basis.
The bodies of more than 240 firefighters, dozens of police officers, and thousands of civilian victims have yet to be recovered. Late last week, despite repeated pleas from both the UFA and the UFOA, Giuliani drastically scaled back the on-site operations by fire fighters to recover bodies at the World Trade Center site, turning it into a "scoop-and-dump" operation. Under the new plan, the rubble is shipped directly to the Fresh Kills landfill. To the horror of fire fighters and families alike, at least one victim’s torso has already been hauled to the dump on Staten Island.
With this callous action, Mayor Giuliani abandoned his solemn pledge he made to the families in September. At that time, Giuliani said, "We will be at the site to recover your loved ones until the last brick is removed." Giuliani’s change of heart stunned thousands of fire fighters and hundreds of widows. His decision broke faith with New York fire fighters by limiting their ability to recover the bodies of their fallen brothers, a long-standing tradition in the fire service dating back more than 200 years.