By Elizabeth O’Brien with Lincoln Anderson
Local lawmakers described a scene of horror and uncertainty inside City Hall last Wednesday as a political opponent fatally shot Councilmember James E. Davis of Brooklyn before the assailant was shot and killed by a police officer in the chamber.
The gunfire erupted at 2:08 p.m. in the crowded chamber as the council was preparing to begin a meeting and concluding its customary ceremonial events. When she heard the shots, Councilmember Margarita Lopez was waiting for a group of young girls in tiaras to return to their seats after receiving a proclamation honoring their participation in the Bronx Puerto Rican Day parade.
“I was enjoying seeing these little girls—queens and princesses,” Lopez said. After the shots rang out from the balcony above, Lopez helped usher the terrified girls into the mayor’s “bullpen” office area, where the mayor and others tried to calm them.
Councilmember Christine Quinn said she heard someone yell for people to dive under their desks.
“I hit the deck,” a visibly shaken Quinn said shortly after the incident.
Another lawmaker said that people grabbed chairs to hold over their heads as they lay on the floor.
Councilmember Alan Gerson said that he was on his way back to City Hall after running some errands when his chief of staff called his mobile phone to tell him what happened. Gerson had to wait outside City Hall Plaza, as police had immediately sealed the entire area, including City Hall Park.
For at least an hour after the shootings, officials believed a gunman was at large. The Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges were temporarily shut and subway trains bypassed stations around City Hall. Word began to filter among the gathered media sometime after 4:00 p.m. that the assailant was also dead.
Gerson said that he met Councilmember Davis, 41, and gunman Othniel Askew, 31, at a press event earlier on Wednesday. Gerson said he sensed that Askew, who had come to City Hall as Davis’ guest, was disturbed.
“Right away he struck me as having something wrong with him,” Gerson said of Askew. “He was very tense and formalistic. He was speaking louder than appropriate for the occasion.”
Gerson also recalled James E. Davis as a flamboyant character who was passionate about his work.
“James used to joke that he and I were kindred spirits,” Gerson said.
Askew was able to avoid the metal detectors outside of City Hall because he entered with Davis, Mayor Mike Bloomberg said at a 5:00 press conference on Wednesday. Before the incident, the mayor and lawmakers were not required to pass through the detectors. Although this privilege did not extend to guests, Askew was waved around the machines as a courtesy.
Bloomberg pledged that, effective immediately, he and all other personnel would have to pass through a metal detector every time, or, “You’re not going to get into City Hall, period.”
Council Speaker Gifford Miller, Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly spoke to reporters after the shooting.