Thursday -- June 13, 2002—Ground
Zero Plus 274
A Fireman's Losing Battle
Over A Flag Of Vigilance
Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News
GROUND ZERO, New York City,
June 13-- Fire Lieutenant Bob LaRocco, 46, knows what it's like to
fight for his life. He won two battles for it on September
11th. However, recently he lost a major battle over a Flag of Vigilance.
This is that story.
On Wednesday evening, May 29th, at 7 p.m.,
Lt. LaRocco of Engine
Company 33, Ladder Company 9, ceremoniously removed a wind-tattered U.S.
Holiday Flag, measuring 20 by 30 feet that had flown on the Lower East Side’s
3rd Street between 2nd and 1st Ave since
September 12th. The flag honored the heroism of the ten
firemen from his station who gave their lives September 11th saving others.
Three were from Ladder 9, seven from Engine 33.
What made the ceremony different from most “moments of honor” that
came on May 30th--the official date of the closing of Ground
Zero efforts to recover the remains of anyone lost in the Terrorist
Attack—was that the New York City chapter headquarters of the Hells
Angels Motorcycle Club was the inspiration and caretaker
of the giant flag
that flew in honor of the "fallen heroes" of Engine Company 33, Ladder
Company 9, nicknamed Bowery "U."
. “We were proud to help them ceremoniously remove the flag,”
LaRocco said. "The Hells Angels were the first community group to
offer their condolences and support. They organized a "Ride For The
Fallen" and raised $15,000 from as far as South Carolina for the families of our guys who were killed
that day. They flew their flag
in honor of our lost brothers. It became our sources of inspiration
and a source of strength for everyone."
But the City of New York didn't look upon
the giant flag strung between buildings on 3rd Street with the same
reverence as Bob LaRocco and the other firemen in his station. They
considered it a nuisance, and issued a letter that the flag must be taken
down. LaRocco pleaded with the mayor to leave the flag flying
until September 11, 2002 as a "symbol of Vigilance" and a
means to honor the ten firemen. His pleas were
The city demanded the flag be removed despite
LaRocco's written statements that his ladder trucks--the highest vehicles
using the streets--passed safely under it. He also noted the flag
flew in respect to his fallen men, and was a symbol of honor and respect
Rather than have the city remove the flag, on May
29th, the firemen and Hells Angels gathered ceremoniously on 3rd Street.
Together, they removed the giant flag, and folded the flag as a team, one
Hells Angel standing next to each fireman. As each fold of the
flag was made, both a fireman's hand and a Hells Angel member's hand
worked the flag into a triangle. At the conclusion of the
ceremony, the President of the Hells Angels presented the Flag of Honor to
Lt. LaRocco and the firefighters of Engine 33, Ladder 9 for safe keeping.
"We decided that since May 30th was the closing
date of Ground Zero for rescue operations we would remove the
flag in honor of our fallen the night before," LaRocco said. "We had
hoped it could keep flying for a full year, but that hope was cut short.
We held the ceremony Wednesday evening because the next day we would be at
Ground Zero, saluting our fallen there."
LaRocco knows a little bit more than most about the
deadly events of September 11th. He was off duty on September 11 on
his way to breakfast when he heard a plane overhead, followed by a loud
"thump." He ran 11 blocks to the firehouse and donned his
firefighting gear, hailed a police car, and made his way into the burning
south tower to help. He had to duck bodies falling from the
top stories, and saw the horrors of pieces of body parts including a
woman's hand, with freshly manicured nails and a diamond ring.
Inside, he started to help remove a woman who was
having a heart attack when the building began to tremble just before it
"It was the loudest noise I ever heard in my life," he
said, "and it got louder with every second that passed." It
took 10 seconds for the massive structure to
collapse. LaRocco was buried in the rubble. The 30 people who had been in the
lobby with him were all killed. He pulled his shirt over his
mouth so he could breathe and began to crawl toward an exit.
He knew the building well and counted on his instincts to guide him in the
blackness of smoke and debris.
He made it out and began to work his way to the
North Tower with another firefighter. Then that building began to
"I was in my turnout gear," he said, "and tired
from crawling out of the rubble. I couldn't run very fast.
There were four fire trucks parked there and I made it with about a second
to spare." LaRocco knelt behind the truck just as big chunks of
concrete started to fall. He clutched his helmet and prayed.
He described the noise as "like 30 locomotives barreling by."
Lt. LaRocco lost ten of his men that day,
part of the 343 firemen killed during their heroic attempt to save lives.
It is estimated that more than 20,000 people escaped the building while
Life Magazine featured a quote from Lt. LaRocco in
its "Heroes" edition, and the firemen digging through the rubble found
something they brought to Lt. Rocco as an expression of his "fortune" that
day to survive being buried under the rubble. It was a toy
bear, squeezed into a piece of steel. "This is for you,
Rocky," they said. "We found it and thought of you. It rode
down 1,000 feet and survived." Lt. LaRocco keeps the toy bear
and piece of steel structure from the World Trade Center on a shelf near
his desk--a reminder of how lucky he was that day. But of all
the symbols of that day that gives him motivation to get up each morning
and prepare himself for any battle, it was the Hells Angels' flag that
sparked him the most.
“It was a tough day,” he said.
“When the Hells Angels put up the big flag on 3rd Street, it
boosted everyone’s morale. They told us they were flying it for
us-- for our ten guys—and the hundreds of others who died that day.
It became our inspiration, our source of strength.”
The giant flag hung over the
street on a taut cable Hells Angels members use when they display flag on
various holidays such as the Fourth of July. After September
11 the flag flew day and night, rain or shine, snow or sleet, wind or no
wind. It was Engine 33, Ladder 9's "beacon in the night."
"Each time we passed the flag, we knew it was flying for our guys,"
said. "If someone was having a bad day, or feeling depressed, it
lifted his spirits. It became our Flag of Faith."
Members of the fire company kept the
flag maintained. If it got whipped by wind and wrapped about the
wire they would unravel it.
"As far as we were concerned, it was
our flag, flying in honor of our men," he said. But the flag also
became part of the community.
Janet Jones, who lives across the
street from the Hells Angels headquarters, flies her own flag--one of an
Indian on a pony emblazed in the middle of the flag. Jones, a
combination of African American, Irish and Native American, was
disappointed when the flag was removed.
"It was part of our culture here,"
she said. "I was sorry to see it come down."
I have taken many pictures of the flag over the
past eight and a half months, and marveled at the Vigilance and patriotism
shown by the Hells Angels who often get only “bad press.”
I live in the neighborhood and know a little
about the Hells Angels. My older daughter, who works with the
homeless as part of her commitment to serving the
Cliff McKenzie and
his friend, Dave Vickery, a United Airlines Senior Pilot, stand under
the 3rd Street Flag
people, often works at Mary House, part of the Catholic Worker located
only a few doors from the Hells Angels headquarters on Third Street.
She says Third Street between 2nd and 1st Avenue is one of the safest
streets in New York City.
When my friends visited New York City, I
took them to the flag and showed them how the neighborhood and Hells
Angels were honoring Nine Eleven. At the time, I didn't
realize there was a demand for its removal, or I would have thrown
whatever resources I could offer to keep the city from removing it.
I viewed the flag as a "Flag of Vigilance," a reminder to me and others to
Over time, I became more affixed to the
flag as others stopped flying theirs. It bothered me that New York
City was slipping into Complacency. First,
it was the 11,000 yellow cabs that removed their flags. Immediately after
Nine Eleven, you saw only a sea of flags in New York City, led by the
44,000 taxi drivers--most of whom have Middle Eastern countenances.
Each cab seemed to fly at least two American flags. Then one day all
the flags on the cabs disappeared as though a central order had been
issued for their removal.
Next came the
removal of flags from retail stores. Fifth Avenue, for
example, displayed flags everywhere immediately after Nine Eleven--even on
mink coats. Flags became integral to merchandising. But
as time passed and more Complacency settled in, the "patriotic emphasis"
to promote flags and sales waned. One by one, the flags came down.
Day by day, week by week, month by month,
the city denuded itself of flags until only a scattering of the once
red-white-and-blue blanket dotted the walls of concrete. It
made the Hells Angels' flag even more important to me. I was
glad it stayed up. It became my symbol of Vigilance.
The fire department looked after the flag as they might put fresh flowers
each day on the graves of their fallen brothers. When the memorial
flag whipped wildly on a blustery day and wrapped itself around the wire
guides, Engine 33, Ladder 9 would cruise by and quickly unfurl it again.
Each time, people on the streets cheered and saluted the fireman.
The flag became a community symbol representing the pride and honor of
those who sacrificed their lives that day, and, a signal that we should
not let up on our concerns it could happen again..
I went out of my way to make my
journey east or west across 3rd Street just to feel the
presence of the flag. I live on 7th Street and my daughters on 2nd
and 1st, so I would negotiate my way past the Hells
Angels just to get a spark of inspiration from Old Glory.
As a former Marine with 100
combat operations in Vietnam, I also knew a little about the price of
honor—it is expensive. In Engine 33, and Ladder 9’s case, it
cost ten lives. No flag could be big enough to offer gratitude
for what those ten men had given up, or the 333 other firemen who also
lost their lives that day. I lost over 50,000 buddies in
My Marine background also put me in kinship
with the Hells Angels. I had been a victim of a "negative attitude"
upon my return from Vietnam.
I was spat upon, called a "baby killer,"
and treated as a second or third-class citizen. I was told I
was scum, and that the flag I fought for was only an excuse to kill
people, and rape and pillage an innocent land.
To me, they were like my buddies who volunteered to join the Marine
Corps. Each Marine has a quirk for being independent, for putting
himself or herself on the cutting edge of danger. Marines are the
"extremists" of the military, those who go in first, fight the hardest,
and blindly die for their country and flag. Society often shuns such
independence. It prefers conformity rather than individuality.
The Hells Angels stand on the precipice of that
conformity. They test society's tolerance for those who are
different, who refuse "normality."
America, so many forget, was born out of a
refusal to accept certain laws and regulations imposed on the colonists by
England. Some still believe more in the right to be "who they are,"
rather than " the pressures to conform." Freedom,
ultimately, is about stretching the degrees of separation, not
shrinking them. The more diverse groups can be and still live
in harmony, the more secure Freedom becomes. I look upon the
Hells Angels as a force that keeps Freedom alive, and teaches others the
importance of being able to choose different life styles--even if one
might not agree with them.
Flying the flag despite the city's demand
for its removal was just one more example of the Hells Angels' refusal to
conform. But prudence overcame revolution. Rather than face a
confrontation with the city, Lt. LaRocco and the Hells Angels agreed to
remove the flag on May 29th in a ceremony of respect for the ten fallen
firemen for which it flew.
I wasn't aware at the time of the
conflict between the flag and the city. On May 30, my wife and I
went to Ground Zero to see another flag retire.
It had flown above the “Last Load,”
the 53 ton piece of steel representing the last of 1.6 millions tons of
steel removed from the site over the past 261 days. It represented
the end of the "search and rescue" operation. It was the "official,"
closing of the Ground Zero Graveyard.
A giant yellow truck hauled the “Last Load” out,
wrapped in black muslin and covered with an American Flag. As
the truck disappeared into the Holland tunnel, not only the “Last Load”
but the “Last Flag” was also swallowed in the darkness. At the
time, I was thinking the "Last Flag of Vigilance" flies on Third Street,
by the Hells Angels.
When I returned to the East Village,
I walked down Third Street to see the flag, but it was gone. Then I
began to ask why.
I regret I wasn’t cognizant of
the battle between City Hall and the right of the Hells Angels to keep
their flag flying in honor of the fallen firemen of Engine 33, Ladder 9
until September 11th of this year. I would have helped
secure petitions, and trumpeted the cause. Perhaps my Marine
"outsider" nature likes to challenge authority I consider in violation of
I sided with Lt. LaRocco. A
flag that inspires and motivates a man to give his life for others, or to
respect those who did, shouldn't be removed on a technicality, or perhaps
because those who fly it aren't considered with the equal respect as the
rest of the citizenry.
Further, I saw the flag as a Flag of Vigilance
for the community. It belonged to the "people" not the city.
I felt if the flag should be forced down, the decision should come from
the citizens of the East Village, not from a Department of Transportation
edict following some regulations printed in a book. These are
not normal times. Exceptions can and should be made when they
move people to think and act more Vigilantly.
My great fear isn’t that their flag
might have been too big, but instead, that the vision of the city is far
too small. The removal of the Hells Angels’ flag is, to
me, the removal of another chunk of mortar in the Bricks of Vigilance that
fortress our attention toward protecting our community from assault.
Terrorism’s goal is to inflict Fear,
Intimidation and Complacency into a society.. Like a nefarious
cobra, it coils itself in the bushes while those who think they are safe
shed their skins of worry and concern, and waits
for Complacency to blossom. Then it strikes unexpectedly and often
Removing the Hells Angels’ flag was just
one more step toward such Complacency. Unfortunately, this
Complacency was driven down from government. The decision forces the
citizens of the community to expose themselves, to become more vulnerable.
Vigilance, I have always shouted as loudly
as my words can, belongs to the community not to government.
Vigilance is the people’s right, an unalienable one that government cannot
or should not attempt to override. Had government promoted
Vigilance in the first place, we might not have had a September 11th.
Taking down a Flag Of Vigilance strips those who use it to inspire their
Courage and Conviction of the right to "remember," the right to "honor,"
the right to command their own "destiny."
In my opinion, government’s forceful
pressures exerted upon the Hells Angels and Engine 33, Ladder 9, is an act
of Terrorism in disguise. It strips the community of a Symbol
of Vigilance, and weakens the fiber of a society learning how to fight
I wondered if the flag had been
flown across the street from a Catholic Church whether the city of New
York would issue a demand for its removal.
I also pondered the thought
that the city was forcing the removal of a “Hells Angels’
Flag,” and neglecting Lt. LaRocco's letter stating it was a flag of
"honor" for his fallen brothers, and a community symbol rather than a city
nuisance or safety hazard.
This fight against Terrorism, I believe,
requires perspicuity. We must look beyond the moment, past certain
laws and regulations that impede our Vigilance, and make decisions that
strengthen our individual and collective resolve as a society to fight
Terrorism both of the Physical and Emotional natures.
Emotionally, the flag inspired me. It made me feel "good."
It stood as a Sentinel of Vigilance, night and day, rain or shine,
reminding me that my particular fight with Terrorism was not a lonely one.
I knew the flag represented the blood of
thousands of Americans over time, each who had given his or her life in
defense of Freedom. The red in the flag is the blood of
heroes, past and present, who died for the right of the Hells Angels to
display it. Removing that symbol was more than just conforming to
city ordinances--it was stripping the veins of patriotism--a vital element
in the fight against Terrorism.
I also thought it ironic that the city might have
made the decision to remove the flag solely on the basis that the Hells
Angels didn't represent a group they wanted to promote with special
I thought about the advent of another Terrorist
attack. And wondered if the police or fireman had their pick
of citizens to help back them up in a fierce fight against foreign
invaders, who would be their first choice--members of the city council or
members of the Hells Angels. The answer was obvious.
neighborhood woman in response to missing flag.
Today, the Flag of
Vigilance is gone from 3rd Street. It is folded up in the
firehouse on Great Jones Street, tucked in a closet--a gift from the Hells
Angels to the firefighters who risk their lives daily for all of us.
Walking down the
street, I feel less safe, less secure that I did when it flew.
I walk ashamed.
I walk ashamed our
city government forced its removal and exposed my children and their
children to the vulnerability of Complacency.
I walk ashamed the
ten firemen who died on September 11th from Ladder 9, Engine
33, no longer have their memorial flying in the breeze, honoring them.
And the 333 others who died in addition have one less symbol of their
heroic deeds that day.
But I will pretend the flag is still
there, just as I pretend to see the Sentinels of Vigilance above the site
of Ground Zero, standing tall, all 2,832 of them--looking out at the
horizon, whispering in my ear--Semper Vigilantes, Cliff, Semper
Vigilantes--Always Vigilant...Always Vigilant.