Miami-Dade County

Miami fire chief apologizes to family of black firefighter who found noose in station

Miami Fire Chief addresses the firing of six firefighters

City of Miami Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban with Mayor Tomás Regalado addresses the media about the firing of six firefighters who placed a noose over a colleague's family photos and drew lewd images on pictures of his wife and kids, November 3, 201
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City of Miami Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban with Mayor Tomás Regalado addresses the media about the firing of six firefighters who placed a noose over a colleague's family photos and drew lewd images on pictures of his wife and kids, November 3, 201

Miami’s fire chief apologized Friday to the family of a black firefighter who in September found a noose hanging over his personal photos inside his room in a city fire station.

“You have my sincerest apologies for this childish, insensitive and intolerable act,” Chief Joseph Zahralban said during a press conference called to discuss the firing of six firefighters two days earlier. “You don’t treat family this way. We know this. I am embarrassed and truly sorry.”

Zahralban said Robert S. Webster, a 17-year veteran whose family photos were taken from his room inside fire station 12, removed from their frames and defaced before being replaced, has told him he believes his fired colleagues were being “young, dumb, and insensitive.” But Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso said the incident, even if it was a prank, “will not be tolerated.”

“If you put ketchup in my shoes, ha ha that’s funny. But this went way beyond that,” Alfonso said. “This is just way beyond the pale.”

If you put ketchup in my shoes, ha ha that’s funny. But this went way beyond that.

City Manager Daniel Alfonso

As first reported by the Miami Herald, Captain William W. Bryson, Lt. Alejandro Sese, and firefighters Kevin Meizoso, David Rivera, Justin Rumbaugh and Harold Santana were fired Wednesday. Their termination letters say the group planned to take three of Webster’s family photos, deface them with images of penises and replace them in his room.

Someone then took a thin, white rope, fashioned a noose and hung it over one of the photos. Police interviewed 20 people under oath, but have been unable to determine who left the noose for Webster to find.

noose (2) (2)
A picture taken from Fire Station 12 on Sept. 9 after a group of firefighters vandalized a colleague’s family photos that were in his room at the fire station. Six Miami firefighters were fired as a result of the incident. Released by Miami Fire Rescue

The incident took place Sept. 10 (previous descriptions said the incident had occurred the day before). Zahralban said he was so concerned when he first heard the details that he traveled to the station to ensure the investigation happened “from the top down.” He said all three shifts assigned to the station were transferred — an unprecedented act — and 11 employees were suspended with pay.

You don’t treat family this way. We know this. I am embarrassed and truly sorry.

Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban

During a press conference Friday, called due to expectations that the event would generate national coverage (it has), Alfonso said documents from the investigation would be released later in the day to the media. The city had already released statements explaining the details of the event, photos of the incident, and pictures of the fired firefighters — which the city has now told the media to stop using.

The city of Miami later withheld transcripts of sworn statements and interviews, citing the ongoing investigation. It released a seven-page memo summarizing the investigation’s timeline and correcting initial reports that the incident had been discovered the night before Irma lashed the region.

Interviews summarized in the memo described an open conversation about personal items being left out inside the station that prompted Sese to complain about Webster’s photos in their dorm room. According to the memo, Sese then retrieved the pictures and brought up the idea of defacing them. After Meizoso, Rumbaugh and Santana participated in drawing lewd images on the photos, Rivera returned them to their picture frames. Bryson was aware of the vandalism, according to the summarized interviews.

firefighters
City of Miami firefighters, from left top: William Bryson, Kevin Meizoso, and David Rivera; from bottom left: Justin Rumbaugh, Harold Santana, Alejandro Sese, were fired over an incident in which someone hung a noose over a black lieutenant’s family photos inside a fire station.

Every interviewee summarized in the memo denied any knowledge of the noose that was placed over the photos.

The Miami-Dade chapter of the NAACP praised the city manager’s actions in a letter Friday afternoon as “an important first step … to ensure that diversity is respected and recognized as an asset within the Fire Department and the Union.”

Attempts to reach Webster have been unsuccessful. But he told WPLG Thursday that it was “stupid,” but not racist.

“Someone playing with something that they didn’t have no business playing with,” he said. “I still believe in what we’re supposed to be.”

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