BROOKLYN (PIX11) – The city’s newest Police Commissioner, William Bratton, has a spacious office that overlooks the Brooklyn Bridge, and Bratton recalled to PIX 11 this week the shooting on March 1, 1994, that signaled New York City would continue to be a target for terrorists. Bratton was serving his first tenure as top cop, when a Lebanese cab driver sprayed a white van with gunfire, which was full of Orthodox Jewish teenagers. One of them was killed and another critically wounded.
“I received a call from Mayor Giuliani,” Bratton recalled in his office recently, about the 10:24 am shooting that started on a ramp leading to the Brooklyn-bound side of the span.
Miller’s Deputy Commissioner for Public Information in 1994 was John Miller, who remembered getting to the Brooklyn side of the bridge very quickly, where paramedics were removing a couple of critically injured students.
“My cell phone rang,” said Miller, “and it was someone from the National Security Council at the White House, asking if this was possibly a terrorist attack.”
Police initially heard reports the shooting was spurred by “road rage”-after the van cut off the livery cab driver. But more investigation revealed it was likely retaliation for a fatal rampage in the West Bank, several days before. A Jewish settler in Hebron, who happened to be a doctor from Brooklyn, shot up a mosque there in late February 1994, killing 29 Arabs, as they prayed. The suspect in the Brooklyn Bridge case, Rashid Baz, had gone to a mosque in Bay Ridge several days before opening fire over the East River. Witnesses later said worshippers were being encouraged to retaliate for what had happened in Hebron.
Devorah Halbertam, whose son was mortally wounded by a gunshot wound to the head, remembered rushing to St. Vincent’s Hospital, to find her 16-year old Ari hooked up to life support machines, his long legs hanging out of the hospital bed.
“There is nothing in this world that could match being told that your child is going–is dying–before your eyes.”
Ari Halberstam died four days later, but the fellow student who lay in the same room with a bullet in his head, Nachum Sosonkin, would ultimately survive. Sosonkin’s balance and speech were affected, but he later married and had children.
The shooting–a year after the first bombing at the World Trade Center–was an early indicator that terrorists would continue to set their sights on New York. It wasn’t until the 9/11 attacks more than seven years later, which left more than 2,700 people dead in lower Manhattan, that the city really learned how serious radical Islamists were.
Bill Bratton is back at One Police Plaza, and he’s put John Miller in charge of counter-terrorism efforts. Miller was a veteran journalist who interviewed Osama bin laden in 1998–and later worked for the LAPD, the FBI, and National Intelligence agency for close to ten years.
“What I remember most is what he said,” Miller recalled about bin Laden. “He said ‘We’re declaring war on America. I predict a black day for the United States, after which the states will no longer be united. This will be bigger than our battle with the Russians.”
Miller continued, “I always thought that interview was more than just an interview. It was a preview of what was perhaps the darkest day in our modern history.”
Bratton pointed out there wasn’t much time spent on counter-terrorism programs twenty years ago, in 1994.
As for today? “Almost a thousand officers working full time on this issue,” Bratton told PIX 11, “versus in the 1990’s, we would have had a 100 people assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and that was it.”
Rashid Baz, the Brooklyn Bridge killer, was sentenced to more than 141 years in state prison, and Devorah Halberstam spent much of the 90’s pushing for New York State to create terrorism laws. She won that battle,and recently, a man named Jose Pimental was sentenced to 16 years in prison, for plotting to set off pipe bombs in the city.
Halberstam also succeeded in having the ramp leading to the Brooklyn Bridge named for her late son, Ari. The teen also had the Jewish Children’s Museum on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn built in his honor. And while she’s pleased to have these tributes to her son, the pain of what happened on that March morning still drives so much of her day to day life, even twenty years later.