Opa-locka Three: The Sequel

After the fire, the fire still burns

The memo blames Clark's comments for the ensuing "furor of anti-Fire Department sentiment" and the barrage of "offensive remarks (i.e., vilification and insults) in response." It is dated October 24, 2001, the day the department released its findings in the investigation, and Clark says he was given a draft memo earlier to sign. He refused, however, and the memo apparently languished in his personnel file for the next few months. Then on January 23, 2002, Clark's supervisor, Lt. Maria Elena Chin, signed the document but attached an accompanying note: "As ordered from chain of command, I am signing the attached record of counseling," Chin wrote. "I did not initiate this disciplinary process. I was not FF William Clark's supervisor at the time of incident. I am incongruent with statements written on the record of counseling form and I am reluctant to sign. As his current supervisor, I was told to sign."

Chin didn't name the person who forced her hand, but her own memo is addressed to Chief Michael Dunn, the division chief who oversaw the fire department's handling of the September flag flap and who was in charge of the subsequent investigation. Dunn has attracted resentment from many black firefighters who point out it was he who in 2000 ordered the U.S. flag removed from a truck at a Little Havana station because of Elian Gonzalez-related hostility from neighborhood Cubans. (Dunn was recently reassigned to a training division.)

Nevel wrote to current fire chief Charles Phillips on January 30 requesting the department investigate the circumstances surrounding Lieutenant Chin's signing and simultaneous repudiation of the disciplinary action. "The purported record of counseling ... contains the same kind of false accusations and innuendo that led to the media lynching of my clients," Nevel stated in his letter. "Firefighter Clark vigorously disputes the accuracy and appropriateness of this outrageous employment action, and hereby demands further review." If the department and the three firefighters aren't able to agree on ways to resolve their differences, Nevel says he will probably file a civil-rights lawsuit in federal court.

Even though they had not disobeyed the law or fire department orders, William Clark (left), Terry Williams (middle), and James Moore say they're still the bad guys
Steve Satterwhite
Even though they had not disobeyed the law or fire department orders, William Clark (left), Terry Williams (middle), and James Moore say they're still the bad guys

Clark, beginning his 21st year with the department, resumed working in late October because he had little accrued leave time and felt he couldn't jeopardize his family's finances. He requested to be assigned to the special-events unit, believing he'd be safer than if he went back to riding the truck with people who hated him. But even that arrangement backfired this past November. Clark was sent to work the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway -- until, according to Clark, a couple of other firefighters saw him and threatened to walk off the site if he wasn't removed. Then NASCAR official Al Garcia found out and complained to division chief Arthur Holmes, Sr. Even though neither Garcia nor any other event coordinator has the authority to tell the fire department whom to send to an event, Clark agreed to a reassignment to avoid confrontation.

Now he's back at one of his old stations, No. 44 in Palm Springs North. He praises his current team and says his co-workers have been supportive and willing to listen to his side of the controversy. But Clark no longer works overtime "because I don't trust anyone but my immediate crew," a decision that significantly affects his earnings and can reduce the eventual amount of his retirement fund by tens of thousands of dollars.

For Moore, a 21-year veteran of the department, and Williams, with 10 years on the job, the situation is increasingly ambiguous. In an ideal world they would prefer to salvage their careers, work in their chosen profession, and retire with a nice pension. But they don't know how that will be possible now. Moore is still using up his accrued leave time, but Williams has none left and hasn't received a check in more than two months. "My psychiatrist and therapist have told me I'm not in the mindset to go back," Moore begins, trying to explain why he hasn't been able to bring himself to try to work with people who have vowed not to even remain in the same room with him. "Basically, everything we were has been shattered."

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