- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 4, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) The most serious criminal charges were dropped yesterday against firefighters accused of tangling with police during an angry demonstration against changes in the recovery effort at the World Trade Center site.
The protest Friday underscored the raw emotions of firefighters, hailed by the nation as heroes since September 11. The rally protested a change in city policy that limits the number of Fire Department members who can work at "ground zero" in efforts to recover the remains of people killed in the collapse of the twin towers.
"For us, it's a matter of honor and dignity. As a Marine I learned you don't leave your fallen heroes on the battlefield," said Pat Banken, a union leader.
The new policy restricts the number of firefighters and police officers at the scene to 25 from each department. At times, the number has been as large as 150.
City officials said there were safety and health hazards in having so many firefighters searching through rubble in the midst of cranes and excavation equipment.
The policy, which took effect on Tuesday, also takes sole control of the site away from the Fire Department. Instead, the fire and police departments and the city Department of Design and Construction now supervise the site together.
Firefighters fear the new policy will turn the recovery effort into a "full-time construction scoop and dump operation."
"You wouldn't excavate a cemetery or sacred burial ground like that," said Peter Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. "Why would you do that with thousands of citizens of this country buried down there?"
Thousands of firefighters have spent time at the site working to recover remains from the still-burning mountain of steel and concrete. More than 200 of their comrades, with thousands of civilians and other uniformed officers, are still buried in the rubble. City officials put the total number of missing at 3,897.
"We realize that this is an emotional issue for firefighters and their families," F Fire Department spokesman Frank Gribbon said. "We will continue to search for missing firefighters, police and civilians. We will continue to remove any bodies recovered in a respectful and dignified manner."
Ten of the 12 firefighters arrested during the melee Friday were arraigned yesterday morning. Felony charges, including incitement to riot, were dropped, said Steven Rabinowitz, a union attorney. Remaining charges include criminal trespassing and obstructing governmental administration, he said.
The district attorney's office declined to prosecute the other two persons arrested Friday, Mr. Rabinowitz said. Messages left with the district attorney's office seeking comment were not returned promptly.
Five police officers were injured Friday during the protest. Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen later apologized to the injured officers on behalf of the Fire Department.
The rally brought to the surface firefighters' long-simmering dissatisfaction with Mr. Von Essen. As their rally reached the gates of City Hall on Friday, firefighters called for his resignation, chanting "Tommy must go." And at a benefit concert two weeks ago, firefighters booed Mr. Von Essen when he came on stage.
Two firefighting unions gave him a vote of no-confidence in April. The unions say he has not stuck up for the rank-and-file.
"People are very upset; they're very distraught," Mr. Von Essen, a firefighter for more than 20 years and a former union president, said Friday. "Maybe these are not the people who have the ability to detach themselves from the situation." He did not address calls for his resignation.


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