‘National Freedom Hero’
He Helped Blow Up a Cop, Now He’s Being Celebrated
It was the fifth and final call on a Puerto Rico-born police officer’s first day on patrol when the bomb planted by the Puerto Rican nationalist group FALN took out his right eye.
At 4 p.m. on Dec. 11, 1974, rookie Police Officer Angel Poggi set off from the 23rd Precinct in East Harlem for his very first time on patrol.
His training officer, Detective Ray Flynn, was on the seat beside him as Poggi took the wheel of the radio car. Poggi dutifully recorded each call in his memo book as they went from one job to another.
“A gun run… a psycho… domestic abuse… a burglary,” Poggi recalled to The Daily Beast on Saturday. “Interesting.”
He added simply, “That’s what I wanted to do.”
They were nearing midnight and the end of the tour and Poggi was about to head back to the stationhouse when the radio crackled again.
“We received a call of a possible dead body,” he remembered.
Moments later, the cops pulled up to an abandoned tenement at 336 E. 110th St., the address given by a woman who had telephoned the report anonymously to the police. Flynn headed for an exterior doorway leading into the deep darkness of the cellar.
“He told me to go up the stoop,” Poggi would recall.
Poggi ascended the steps to a big set of double doors, sticking into his overcoat pocket the one radio that squad cars carried in those days. He tried to open the door on the left first, but it barely budged. He thought that perhaps a body was blocking it and he used his flashlight to peer inside. He saw that part of the foyer wall had fallen on that side.
He tried the door on the right and as it began to open he saw something delicate and almost imperceptible.
“What looked like one strand of a spider web,” he would remember.
In the next instant, there was an explosion and he was blown backward 20 feet. The strand had been a tripwire rigged so that the motion caused it to pull a bit of insulation from a clothespin whose ends had been wrapped in metal foil. The ends touched, completing an electrical circuit and setting off a bomb packed with nails that the Puerto Rican nationalist group known as the FALN had planted so it would explode in a responding officer’s face.
Poggi now lay stunned and bleeding on the sidewalk. Flynn ran over.
“He’s asking me about the radio, ‘Where’s the radio!’” Poggi would remember. “I was like, ‘Uh… uh… what?’”
Flynn found the radio and put out a call for help. One of the first cops to respond was a sergeant who helped get Poggi in the back of a radio car and cradled him in his arms.
“I closed my eyes once in the car,” Poggi would recall.
He was still conscious when he reached Metropolitan hospital. Doctors determined that Poggi had injuries to his right eye, neck, and chest. He would need exploratory surgery to remove the shrapnel.
“At a certain point, they knocked me out,” Poggi remembered. “I awoke two days later, maybe three days.”
The doctors informed him that his right eye had been injured beyond repair.
“They told me they had to take that one,” Poggi would remember. “I said, ‘Can I drive?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘OK, I can deal with it.’”
His father is extremely quiet and had said little when Poggi joined the NYPD. His mother had made her misgivings known.
“My mother says what she feels,” Poggi would note. “She told me from the beginning she didn’t like it, but I had to do what I had to do.”
She and his father now visited him at the hospital. His father was as stoic and reserved as ever.
“He said, ‘How are you?’” Poggi would recall.
His mother was manifestly as upset as any loving mother would have been.
“I told my mother, ‘I had 20 years of nothing happening to me and this is just the way life happened to me,’” he would recall.
When recounting this moment to The Daily Beast more than four decades later, he added, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.”
He did not say that random chance had proved particularly cruel when the first victim of an FALN bomb in New York was a Puerto Rican-born cop on his very first tour. He had been asked by a newspaper reporter back in 1974 how he felt about the bombers and he had tapped his head and said there must be something wrong with them. He had declined to say anything more because, “I don’t want to give these people any publicity.”
Poggi was similarly restrained when asked by The Daily Beast on Saturday for his thoughts regarding this year’s Puerto Rican Day Parade on June 11 in New York, which plans to honor former FALN leader Oscar Lopez Rivera as its first “National Freedom Hero.”
“How can they praise him after he had a part in the FALN and people dying?” Poggi replied, his voice as quiet as his father would have been, but suffused with the emotion his mother would have expressed.
Rivera was never convicted of actually taking part in any of the group’s 143 bombings that killed five people and maimed four cops, but physical evidence conclusively tied to him to explosives and other bomb-making materials as well as FALN communiqués. He was convicted of federal charges of sedition, transporting explosives, and transporting firearms. He served 35 years of a 55-year sentence before being granted clemency in the final days of the Obama administration. He remained under house arrest in Puerto Rico until earlier this month.
Rivera was welcomed upon his release by New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who had somehow seen nothing inappropriate in taking along her NYPD security detail when she flew down. A senior NYPD official says that she asked her detail to give Lopez a ride, but they refused. Mark-Viverito has been quoted by the website NYPD Confidential saying this never happened.
Of Rivera, she has told the press, “We have to look at the widespread and disproportionate sentence to an individual who was not linked to any act of violence that hurt or killed anyone.”
The same senior NPYD official would suggest this was like saying that Osama bin Laden was not responsible for 9/11 because he did not fly one of the planes.
Those who have pulled out of the parade include NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, the NYPD Hispanic Society, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, as well as a host of corporate sponsors, among them the New York Yankees and Goya Foods.
At last report, Mayor Bill de Blasio still intends to march. He told reporters, “The parade committee made a choice this year on someone to honor. That does not change the basic nature of the parade. Whether you agree with that choice or not, it’s still the Puerto Rican parade and my point is, I will be there to honor the Puerto Rican people. I intend on marching. It’s as simple as that.”
De Blasio may find it is not so simple the next time his mayoral duties require him to go to an emergency room to visit a shot cop.
What is simple is the logic Poggi offered on Saturday.
“If he was part of the FALN, he has to take responsibility for what the FALN did,” Poggi said.
Poggi continued to sound like a mix of his father and his mother, quietly passionate. He is too modest and unassuming to ever suggest it, but he would be exactly the right person for the parade to honor. Here was someone whose primary concern when then-Police Commissioner Michael Codd visited him at the hospital back in 1974 was to remain on the job.
“First things first,” Codd told him.
Codd was heartsick to inform Poggi that because of an ongoing fiscal crisis, he was one of the last hired, first fired rookies the city had slated to be laid off the following month.
“I really don’t see the purpose of being forced off,” Poggi told Codd. “I really want to stay.”
Codd reached out to City Councilman Howard Golden, who introduced a bill. Poggi had a white patch over his right eye when he testified at a hearing held by the same legislative body now headed by Mark-Viverito.
The bill quickly passed and became a law that, as Poggi later put it, “You can’t lay off any police officer who had been disabled in the line of duty.”
Poggi remained on the job and was assigned to what is known as the “124 Room” at the 23rd Precinct, the clerical office where crime complaints are received and filed. He would take information from citizens who came in to make a report, but his time of responding to calls on the street had ended after just under eight hours.
“I can’t go out on patrol any more,” he would tell The Daily Beast. “My first day was also my last day.”
His one opportunity to venture out came when a lieutenant had an urgent need for a Spanish speaker. Poggi went with him and served as an interpreter. But the precinct’s union delegate registered an objection when they returned.
“He said, ‘You can’t use him outside,’” Poggi would recall. “That’s because of my sight.”
As the doctors had said, he was able to drive, but some other things were surprisingly difficult in the days after he left the hospital. He initially experienced trouble with depth perception in situations such as when he went to step off a curb while walking.
“Even stepping off a sidewalk you have to get used to,” he told The Daily Beast.
Meanwhile, the FALN had struck again, this time on Jan. 24, 1975, at Fraunces Tavern in downtown Manhattan, where George Washington had bid farewell to his officers back in 1783. The bombing nearly two centuries later targeted business executives at their lunch hour. Four people were killed and more than 50 injured. X-rays of the victims showed they had been penetrated by knives and forks and shards of plates turned to deadly projectiles by the force of the blast.
On Aug. 3, 1977, a FALN bomb apparently planted inside an umbrella left in the Mobil employment office on East 42nd Street in Manhattan exploded. A 26-year-old executive was killed.
Poggi continued working in the 124 Room, which became the first in the city to get a computer.
“So I had to learn that a little bit,” Poggi said.
Poggi was later sent to various commands to teach others how to use computers. He was then asked if he wanted to be assigned to the main computer center at police headquarters.
“I said, ‘Sure, what do I have to lose?’” he would remember.
Poggi was on duty at headquarters on New Year’s Eve in 1982, when Police Officer Rocco Pascarella was among the cops sent to conduct a perimeter search outside after a bomb attached to a timer planted by the FALN went off outside the nearby federal building. Pascarella now came upon a Kentucky Fried Chicken container and nudged it with his foot.
“And there went his foot,” Poggi later said.
The explosion tore off Pascarella’s right leg below the knee. He subsequently would undergo six surgeries on his other leg and his face and ears. He lost much of his hearing and so much of his eyesight that his driving days were over.
The cops who responded to that bombing included Detective Salvatore Pastorella and Detective Anthony Senft of the bomb squad. A civilian couple pointed out two other suspicious packages outside the U.S. attorney’s office just across St. Andrew’s Plaza from headquarters.
Senft had brought an explosives detection dog, which alerted on both packages. The detectives set a bomb blanket over one package and Pascarella set to examining the second.
As the dog handler, Senft could have withdrawn behind cover, but he did not want to leave Pascarella by himself. Senft was still there when Pascarella set to disarming the package.
The device detonated. Pastorella was blinded and lost all the fingers on his right hand and most of his teeth. Senft lost an eye and suffered severe injuries to his face and body.
All three cops injured that night were kept on the job by the bill that had originally been passed on Poggi’s behalf. Poggi himself continued working at headquarters until he retired in April of 1982. He was at Citibank for a time and then moved to Florida, where he worked for the state department of transportation at truck-weighing stations.
He still has his NYPD memo book such as cops are required to keep on patrol.
“I figured why throw it out,” Poggi said.
The book records that first and only night. A gun run. A psycho. Domestic abuse. A burglary. And report of a possible dead body.
“Interesting, but short lived,” Poggi said.
He will turn 65 on June 23, a dozen days after the Puerto Rican Parade. His words about his life since the bombing further prove him to be an example of quiet strength and perseverance such as people of all backgrounds should honor.
“I accepted what happened to me and took it from there,” Poggi said.