BATTLE AT THE BATTERY TUNNEL
One morning in l988, as I signed into the
command log at the desk in the 120th Precinct, I noticed a tall black cop named Bob Prather standing nearby. He wore the NYPD Police Combat Cross on his blue uniform jacket. The
medal reflected the sunlight as it dangled from the light green ribbon on his chest. The Combat Cross is one of the highest decorations awarded to members of the New York City Police
Department. It is only bestowed on cops who have engaged in mortal combat in life-threatening situations. Cops who receive this medal wear a light green breast bar
over their shields with Commendations, Meritorious Police Duty, and Excellent Police Duty awards that they have received during their careers. The actual medal
and ribbon is proudly worn during Department ceremonies such as Medal Day at Police Headquarters.
The start of a day tour in the 120th Precinct was always a busy time. Usually, there
would be over sixty officers working that tour of duty. The sitting room was a noisy place as the officers chatted and exchanged information with each other. As I
stepped from behind the desk and walked towards the sitting room to turn out the platoon, Officer Prather informed me that this would be his last tour of duty. He was
retiring from the job. He looked me in the eye and said he wanted to say goodbye to the troops.
I was stunned by his words. I accompanied him into the sitting room and shouted for the platoon to "fall in" for roll call. They
assembled into ranks four rows deep and covered off at close interval. I handed Prather the roll-call sheet and he stood before the platoon and called the roll. He then gave a
touching talk about his career with the NYPD and expressed his intention to retire. The emotional effect was felt by all of us in that room. The entire platoon of officers was
silent as he addressed them and expressed his pride in having served with the NYPD. The younger officers stood with their eyes
glancing at the rows of breast bars and the Combat Cross on his uniform. The impact of his farewell left me with a sense of loss. The Department could ill afford to lose
officers like Prather. He was leaving in the prime of his career. Veterans like him were needed to train and guide inexperienced cops. He should have recounted the
story of how he earned that Combat Cross. Modesty prevents men like him from revealing the details of their heroism. Recently, I had lunch with him and he did me the honor of sharing his thoughts with me....
It was a hot day in June of l975 and he would rather be spending his day off with his daughter in a more pleasant way. Bob was annoyed at the scheduled meeting with
the PBA in Manhattan. Bob's wife, Octavine, was at work and his five-year-old daughter Candice was thrilled to be taking the ride into the big city with her dad. It
would be a ride that neither of them would ever forget.
The heat from the interior of the car was stifling, so Bob rolled down the windows of
the blue'74 Hornet before they got in and waited with his daughter as the seats cooled. Beads of perspiration formed on his forehead and his shirt was already
beginning to cling to his sweating body. As was his custom, he carried his off-duty Smith & Wesson five shot model 36 Chief under a knit shirt pulled over the butt of the
revolver. He had tucked the gun inside his belt and felt it press against his hip as he slid into the front seat of the car.
He was angry as his thoughts turned to the civilian complaint. When CCRB referred
the complaint back for Command Discipline, the Commanding Officer called Bob into his office to inform him that he would be docked vacation time for the alleged
complaint. The CO didn't even bother to interview Bob and to get all the facts before coming to his decision. Bob had refused to accept the finding of the CO and had
elected to go to the Department Trial Room. He believed that the complaint was unfounded and believed that he would prevail at a trial. The PBA had advised that Bob
come to the office to discuss his decision. Driving into Manhattan on his day off only added to the frustration that he felt.
Bob lived in the Annadale Section of Staten Island. He drove up Arden Avenue to Arthur Kill Road and headed towards the Verrazano Bridge. It was a few more miles
until traffic merged into the Staten Island Expressway. Candice watched as the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge came into view. Her eyes grew large with excitement as
they began to cross the mile expanse of the bridge. Bob chose the upper deck to let her have a good view of the Manhattan Skyline and the harbor. Tugboats and tanker
ships passed under the bridge and she gazed thoughtfully at the foamy wakes behind the ships. Off in the distance, she could see Hoffman and Swinburne Islands
shimmering in the summer heat. It was a thrill to see the city from this angle. For a child of five, it was a real treat. She settled down again as the car approached the
Brooklyn side of the bridge and watched as the traffic fed onto the Brooklyn -Queens Expressway.
As they crossed over the Gowanus Canal, the car climbed higher over the waterway,
and she could see the skyline of Manhattan. Bob now made a crucial decision that would effect them for the rest of their lives. He could either bear right and remain on
the BQE which would take him to the Brooklyn Bridge, or, he could bear left and take the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel which required a toll. Taking the tunnel would be much
quicker, but would cost him some money. Trucks lined up at the ramp leading off to the Brooklyn Bridge and it looked like they would be delayed with all the traffic. The
car air-conditioner was laboring to keep the air at a comfortable level, so he steered the car to the left lane into the toll plaza of the Battery Tunnel.
As he waited behind the column of cars lining up behind each tollbooth, he glanced in his rearview mirror and saw a motorcycle cop coming up behind him. The officer
appeared to be chasing a car. Suddenly, the car sped past the tollbooth without paying and headed into the tunnel with the officer in pursuit. Bob looked back at his
daughter in the rear seat of his car and proceeded to drive into the tunnel. He remembered remarking to his daughter that the officer was going to give the motorist
a ticket. He maneuvered his car into the traffic that filed into the Battery Tunnel. He marveled to himself at the thought that they would be traveling under the East River.
The engineering of the tunnel always amazed him; yet, he always had an uneasy feeling when he drove through it. He was always glad to see the daylight at the other
end. The white tiles on the walls flashed by them as the two lanes of vehicles moved towards the Manhattan side.
He was almost through to the Manhattan side when the traffic slowed. The brake
lights of the cars formed a double row of glowing red lines ahead of him. As the vehicles came to a complete halt, he nervously squinted through the engine exhaust
forming from the two columns of idling cars. He always hated when traffic halted in the tunnel. The air quickly became stuffy and filled with acrid smoke and began to
filter into the interior of the car. The stifling heat added to the discomfort. Drivers of some of the cars behind him began to honk their horns at the delay. He looked
ahead and saw the police motorcycle with emergency lights flashing. Apparently, the officer had stopped the car that he had been chasing.
Bob told Candice to remain seated in the car as he climbed out to see what the problem was. As he walked towards the front, he could see that the officer had his
service revolver in his hand. Two men were inside the vehicle and the officer was excitedly talking over his walkie-talkie radio. Prather looked back at his daughter with
concern. He saw the situation that the officer was in and knew that he had to act. He drew his shield and identified himself to the uniformed cop, Police Officer Steve
Sadler of Motorcycle Unit #2. Sadler was visibly relieved and began to brief Prather when by a fortunate coincidence, Detective John Lyons, Staten Island District
Attorney's Office, declared his presence, identified himself and offered his assistance.
All three cops pulled the two men out of the vehicle and tossed them for weapons.
Bob had his guy spread-eagled with his hands on the roof of the car. In the confusion of the moment, with commands being shouted, Bob patted down his
suspect and out of the corner of his eye watched as Lyons and Sadler checked the other man for weapons. As he had often done in multiple arrest situations, they
were about to switch prisoners and conduct a second search. It was then that he saw the small automatic pistol cupped in the palm his suspect's hand. He shouted a
warning and dove for cover as the suspect fired two quick shots at him. Instinctively, Bob returned fire and emptied his revolver in the exchange. Lyons and Sadler
shoved the second suspect to the ground and took cover behind the vehicles. In the confusion, the gunman entered a third vehicle and took the driver hostage with his
weapon pointed at the frightened man's head. Detective Lyons had fired his weapon but still had some rounds left. He kept the suspect covered while Prather ejected the
expended shells from the cylinders of his revolver and was quickly reloading from his ammunition pouch. Bob always carried extra cartridges when off-duty. He had
always feared running out of ammunition in an off-duty firefight. That habit served him well on this day. Bob had taken cover behind a Volkswagen Beetle and as he
reloaded his revolver, he glanced up into the passenger window of the Volkswagen and saw the face of a woman staring at him with terror in her eyes. She watched as
he slid the slender .38 caliber cartridges into the cylinder chambers. In the heartpounding action, all those hours of training at the NYPD pistol range at
Rodman's Neck paid off. Instinctively, his fingers twirled the shells and rolled them into position for insertion into the weapon. Finally, he snapped the cylinder shut and was again ready to resume the fight.
At that point, the suspect made a fatal mistake. He had been in the front seat of the car with his weapon pressed against the head of the hostage, but now he jumped
into the rear seat and raised his weapon and pointed it at Officer Prather. Instantly, Bob opened fire. Flashes from the muzzle of his revolver lit up the battle scene. The
car window shattered as the bullets tore through the glass. Bob could see the suspect's face contorted with pain and shock. In the terror of the moment, Bob noted
the fear etched on the face of the hostage in the front seat of the car. Flying bits of glass exploded into the air as the earsplitting gunfire resounded against the tiled
walls of the tunnel. He quickly checked to see that the other suspect was under control. The blood pounded in his ears as he turned his head from side to side to
take in the entire scene. The adrenaline pumping into his system magnified all the sound and visual sensations. The familiar odor filled his nostrils as he peered through
the clouds of gunpowder. His heart raced as he remained in the combat position and slowly edged towards the car. He could see that the suspect was dead. The hostage sat frozen with fear in the front seat.
The sound of police sirens began to fill the tunnel as responding units approached from the Manhattan side. Bob quickly ran back to his car and saw that Candice was
safe. She sat in the seat with her eyes wide with innocence as she watched her father confer with the other cops.
On Medal Day at One Police Plaza, all three officers were awarded the Combat
Cross for their actions that day.
LtoR: Bob Prather, Steve Sadler, John Lyons
On January 1, l992, Police Officer Candice Prather, was sworn in as a probationary police officer with the NYPD. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
Copyright l999 Edward D. Reuss
CLICK HERE FOR MORE STORIES