Queens council members relive City Hall chaos

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Queens council members who were in City Hall's council chamber when gunfire erupted Wednesday stood below buzzing helicopters among crowds of reporters after the shooting, recounting their harrowing experience and speaking about their colleague, Councilman James Davis, who was killed.

Davis, a 41-year old Democrat from Fort Greene, was shot seven times in the torso on the balcony of the City Council chamber shortly after 2 p.m. on Wednesday by a political opponent, Othniel Askew, who was killed by a policeman standing on the council floor.

Askew, 31, who had filed papers to run against Davis in the September Democratic primary, also died from his gunshot wounds.

"It seemed like the shots didn't stop," said Councilman Hiram Monserrate (D-Corona), who was standing behind his chair in the council chamber when the gunfire began. "I fell to the floor, put my hands behind my head and screamed, 'Get down! Get down! Everybody get down!'"

Having served in the Police Department for 12 years and in the U.S. Marines before that, Monserrate said he knew immediately that the popping sounds he heard were gunshots.

"I was praying that I wouldn't be shot," said Monserrate. "I was one of the last to leave. I didn't want to get up and be the target of a shot."

With tears welling up in his eyes, Monserrate spoke about Davis, whom he had talked to just moments before the shooting.

"James Davis was a policeman with me. He is a dynamic person, a friend. I'm hearing that he might have not made it," he said in Spanish in front of several TV news cameras before it was known that the councilman had died.

"In 2001 we both ran for City Council and we both won. We had a lot of affinities," Monserrate said. "He's a very eccentric, very funny guy, a strong guy who would never be intimidated. He was the people's advocate."

Monserrate said Davis had congratulated him on being featured in a New York Times article just before the shots rang out. Davis then stayed on the chamber balcony while Monserrate headed down the stairs to the chamber floor, which he said was filled with about 50 people, including council members, lobbyists, interns, staff and members of several groups that had just been ceremonially recognized by the City Council for their work.

Like Monserrate, Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis) said he dived under his desk in the chamber when he heard the shots.

The speaker (Gifford Miller) and Councilwoman Christine Quinn were under the desk with me," said Weprin. "I heard 15 to 20 shots, one after the other. I dialed 911 on my cell phone while I was on the floor."

After the shots stopped, Weprin said he looked up, heard people screaming 'Get out!' and left the building through a side door.

Weprin said he was very close personally to Davis, who had shown strong support for his legislation to ban the sale of toy guns that can be reasonably perceived as an actual firearm.

"He was very big on stopping violence. About 10 years ago, he got Toys 'R' Us to voluntarily stop selling toy guns," Weprin recalled.

Like many other council members, Weprin said he was in a state of shock after the incident. He said the shooting was an isolated incident and hoped that it would not deter people from going into government, he said.

Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), who emerged from City Hall at around 6 p.m. after being quarantined in a room on the first floor to be questioned by police, said he thought at first that the shots fired were not real and were part of some sort of prank.

"It's just too surreal," he said. "I was in the back of the chamber directly beneath the front of the balcony. There were young girls all around me and they were screaming."

The youngsters, dressed in sashes, were part of a group that had marched in the Bronx Puerto Rican parade who had been honored by the City Council shortly before the shooting, said Gennaro.

Gennaro hit the floor when the shooting first started, then got up and went into a bathroom next to the City Hall rotunda, where he huddled with the Puerto Rican girls for about 10 minutes.

"We dropped to the floor, but then it (the shots) just kept happening, so the logical thing was to try to get out," said Gennaro.

He recalled traveling to Israel with Davis and 10 other city council members in August.

As a former police officer who was widely known by law enforcement agents, Davis helped Gennaro to pass through Newark airport security before the trip with an unmarked bottle containing prescription medication.

"James came over and they said, 'Oh, you're James Davis, the elected cop,'" said Gennaro.

The councilman was then allowed to pass through security with his medication.

Gennaro said Davis, who was a minister in addition to a being a former police officer, was a warm, caring person whom everyone knew.

"He was a preacher - a warm, friendly guy," said Gennaro. "This was just a lunatic and my thoughts are for the Davis family."

Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at, or call 718-229-0300, ext. 155.

Posted 7:22 pm, October 10, 2011
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