MIAMI (AP) — Miami officials apologized Friday to a fire rescue lieutenant who found a noose draped over a family photo ruined by lewd drawings in an incident that led to the firing of six firefighters.
Miami Fire-Rescue Chief Joseph Zahralban vowed to continue investigating, saying it was the first time in his 27 years with the department that he had seen racial harassment of this scale.
"I was disgusted and I was appalled by what I had seen," he said. "I am embarrassed and truly sorry for this insensitive, cruel and offensive act."
Authorities don't know who created the noose and have only accused the six firefighters of helping or drawing penises on family photos of a black lieutenant at his fire station office. One was a captain and another one a lieutenant.
Lt. Robert Webster told Miami station WPLG he felt betrayed by his colleagues when he found the noose and photos on Sept. 10, as he and others worked before and after Hurricane Irma. Miami's officials had incorrectly stated previously the items were found on Sept. 9.
"Racism and the tools of hatred are like a loaded gun sitting on the table," Webster told the news channel.
The accused firefighters deny any knowledge of the noose, according to a seven-page memo drafted by Assistant Fire Chief Robert Jorge summarizing interviews conducted after the incident.
Some of them told investigators that Lt. Alejandro Sese, a supervisor, did not like Webster leaving his personal photos out on display at the station and encouraged the group to draw lewd pictures on them.
Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado said the incident was "difficult to digest" when the city worked to reduce racial disparities after being under investigation by the Justice Department for police shootings.
"It is very important for this administration, this manager, this chief to have taken action," he said. "This is a national conversation."
The firefighters hadn't appealed the Wednesday terminations. They have up to 10 days to dispute them.
The incident marks the second time this year that a South Florida fire department has been scrutinized over a noose. In June, a noose was found hanging over the chair of a black firefighter recruit in a training session in Pompano Beach, leading to one firing and three resignations.
Nooses and swastikas have been increasingly spotted across the country in recent months, signaling a growing use of hate symbols to try to intimidate minorities, according to experts.
This story has been corrected to show that the photos were discovered on Sept. 10, not Sept. 9 as officials previously had said.