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Mobtown Beat

New York State of Mind

Baltimore Firefighters Seethe Over Scuttled WTC Mission

By Molly Rath | Posted 10/3/2001

On the morning of Sept. 13, hundreds of local firefighters were waiting for a message--the word that would send them north to assist their New York peers. As part of an operation put together by Baltimore- and Washington-area fire officials within hours of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 200 firefighters would travel by train to Manhattan every 48 hours, along with flatbed cars piled high with fire trucks, bulldozers, and cranes, ready to dig their way into the rubble of the leveled World Trade Center towers.

But word never came. Hours before the first detail was to leave, the plug got pulled, and the trains never left. As a result, Baltimore's is one of the few major metropolitan fire departments in the country not to assist in the aftermath of the disaster that killed more than 6,000 people.

Why the Baltimore City Fire Department (BCFD) wasn't represented at a rescue operation that drew firefighters from as far away as California isn't completely clear. Some familiar with the situation say fear of firefighters incurring overtime, thus overextending an already cash-strapped department, prompted BCFD brass to err on the side of caution. Others contend that internal politics and jockeying--fallout from former Chief Herman Williams' departure in February, and acting Chief Carl McDonald's August announcement that he too would retire--have paralyzed the interim leadership. Still others maintain the department merely followed protocol--New York fire officials never directly requested aid, so none was dispatched.

Whatever the reason, the scuttled mission has sparked deep anger within the city fire department. Morale--already ebbing due to the leadership void and a widespread feeling in the department that firefighters are second-rank in the police-focused O'Malley administration--is in ashes. One battalion chief plans to retire in protest, and one local union head that represents city firefighters promises there will be consequences once the proverbial dust in New York has settled.

"When it's been one month [from the terrorist attacks], by Oct. 11, the shit is gonna hit the fan on this," says Stephan Fugate, president of Fire Officers Local 964.

According to city and Baltimore County firefighters, a detailed plan to lend assistance in New York began evolving the evening of Sept. 11, once airplanes nationwide were grounded and Baltimore clearly wasn't a likely next target. Based on their accounts, it unfolded as follows:

At McDonald's behest, Baltimore fire battalion chiefs compiled a shift-by-shift roster of firefighters willing to go to New York. The list quickly grew into the hundreds. "Our guys were champing at the bit to go up and help their brothers in New York," says Rick Schluderberg, president of Baltimore City Firefighters Local 734.

By the next morning, though, Fugate was hearing that the list had been shelved and nobody was going. He says he called headquarters and was told by Donald Heinbuch, acting assistant chief of operations and the department's second in command, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was in charge in New York and that no city crews would be dispatched unless the feds asked. Fugate maintained that the New York City fire department had authority. Heinbuch--who led operations during July's Howard Street Tunnel fire and is widely known to be a candidate for chief--replied by citing an International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) edict, issued in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew, that no fire department send personnel following a disaster unless specifically requested to do so.

Fugate characterizes that response as myopic: "I would submit to you that with what happened in New York, the rules go out the window." Fuming, he went to McDonald, and was told there would be no movement unless the New York fire department (FDNY) requested help in writing. With many top New York fire officials presumed dead in the rubble, Fugate says, "it was going to take a long time to get a request," but McDonald held firm. Fugate says he asked the acting chief to put out a departmental bulletin stating the official line. The bulletin was issued--but not until Sept. 17. In the immediate wake of the attacks, city firefighters, watching as their peers from most other major cities as well as Baltimore County (which sent a 10-member FEMA-certified search-and-rescue team)--not to mention two dozen Baltimore City cops--were deployed to New York, received no official orders to move out or stay put.

Meanwhile, local union leaders say, they and Chief William Goodwin, head of the Fire Academy and a past captain of BCFD's search-and rescue squad, felt pressure to act. (Goodwin, who is also a candidate for chief, declined to comment or confirm others' accounts.) They were in contact with head of the New York firefighters' union, who was "asking for professional help," Michael Day, president of Baltimore County Firefighters Local 1311, says. So on the afternoon of Sept. 12, they joined union heads from Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Montgomery counties to hatch a plan to head north.

Maryland firefighters work two days and two nights, then have four days off. Under the union chiefs' plan, 200 firefighters from the various jurisdictions would volunteer in New York during two of those days off, leaving one day on each end to rest up from, and for, their shifts back home. When they returned 200 more would go, so no shift at home would be shorted. Private rail operator CSX would transport the equipment gratis, and Amtrak would run trains to and from New York every 48 hours. The Maryland Transit Administration would fill any other transit gaps, and Baltimore's International Union of Operating Engineers Local 37 committed more than 50 men to operate heavy equipment.

A second unofficial request for aid came on the morning of Sept. 13, when Goodwin got a cell-phone call from Mike Moritz, a Baltimore battalion chief who lives in New York when not on duty. Moritz was assisting his two sons, both New York firefighters, at the Trade Center site. Standing at ground zero next to FDNY's site commander, Moritz told Goodwin more firefighters were desperately needed. Goodwin relayed the message to McDonald. Jerry Robusto, recording secretary for Local 734, was working at the Fire Academy that morning; he says he was tapped to round up all the players for a final planning meeting because the plan was a "go."

But within an hour, McDonald called back and called off the plan, Robusto says. Without the nod from HQ, there was no guarantee of insurance coverage for Baltimore firefighters. Schluderberg and Fugate say they were ready to deep-six the rescue operation, but they kept planning into the afternoon, pressuring FEMA in hopes somebody might change their mind. But that night, FDNY formally notified Baltimore not to send anyone.

Moritz declined to comment. But fire sources say that the battalion chief, who was already slated for retirement, decided to leave the department immediately as a result of its handling of the situation.

Baltimore fire department spokesperson Mike Maybin says the initial orders not to go to New York came directly from McDonald, and were based on the IAFC's edict following the Oklahoma City disaster, as well as the city fire department's own experience of receiving too much help during the July fire.

The department had enough resources to handle the Howard Street fire on its own, and having to respond to the slew of well-meaning offers from other departments in the region "kind of took away from what we were trying to do [in] dealing with the tunnel," Maybin says. "So at the chief's and a couple of his staff members' discretion, the order came out that we would not respond unless requested by the New York City fire department. Then on [Sept. 12] we received notice from [New York police] that the fire department was inundated with volunteers, and the request came not to have additional people come up to New York unless requested."

Baltimore County's Day says BCFD acted correctly. "That anybody dropped the ball is total, total bullshit," he says. "[BCFD] needed something official, whether it came from the New York fire department or whether it came from FEMA, in order for them to cover employees should they be injured in New York."

"If you looked at the letter of the rules, maybe they did the right thing," Schluderberg acknowledges. "But the right thing to do was: Damned with the rules. Go help." He maintains McDonald's lame-duck status and the jockeying at the top ultimately prevented the fire department from acting: "You have a lack of leadership. Chief McDonald is in charge; he is the chief. But you have these other people on the list that want to be chief, and that are afraid to make a decision one way or the other."

Fugate attributes the decision to financial pressures, a concern he says he understands but was misplaced in this case: With other agencies providing transit and firefighters acting on their own time, the New York mission wouldn't have cost Baltimore's fire department a cent, he says. (Asked to comment on the cost issue, BCFD's Maybin says, "I could, but I'd rather not.") Had BCFD not acted indecisively, Fugate argues, Baltimore firefighters could have been helping out when the New York department apparently did still need help.

"By Tuesday [Sept. 11] evening . . . we should have been on the road. Our people should have been north on [Interstate] 95," he says. "Our contention is that we should have already been there" by the time New York said no thanks two days later.

Union reps say firefighters' frustration over the scuttled mission is rooted in the nature of their jobs--to help when disaster strikes--and is echoed in all the involved departments. But in BCFD, the episode further battered already eroding esprit de corps. "What little bit of morale that was here, they just took that away," Local 734's Robusto says.

Fugate says the unions are planning "some kind of massive press conference" following Oct. 11--after the end of a 30-day period of mourning the IAFC suggested departments observe--and a "demonstration, probably a picket at City Hall, and some sort of demonstration at [BCFD] headquarters." The idea, Fugate says, is to publicize the department's actions in the days after the attack and publicly lambaste it for the perceived internal disarray.

Asked if he believes Mayor Martin O'Malley shares blame for the rescue mission's failure, the union chief offers a verbal shrug. "When it comes to the fire department," Fugate says, "he doesn't give a shit."

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