The three black Miami-Dade firefighters who have been vilified for refusing to ride on a rescue vehicle displaying an American flag say the public has made one tiny miscalculation about the event.
They say it never happened.
If that's the case, then something far more sinister has occurred within the Miami-Dade Fire Department: The deliberate character assassination of three veteran firefighters for their personal political views.
If the department upholds the suspensions of the three, the public will have its chance to examine the evidence against them.
But if they are cleared, a second investigation must follow: to determine who set out to destroy their careers.
``At no time did we refuse to perform our jobs with the flag on the truck,'' Terry Williams told me. ``This whole story was created on hearsay. The assumption that we refused to do our job with the flags on the truck is utterly false.''
The alleged defiance of Williams, James Moore and William D.C. Clark has become a national cause célbre following the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
WSVN-Fox 7 broke the story Sept. 18, and radio station WHYI Y-100 broadcast a call-in show the next morning blasting the trio -- before anyone had interviewed them.
``We were tried and convicted on Tuesday by Channel 7, on Wednesday Y-100 carried out the execution, then on Thursday, the department asked us for our side,'' Moore told me.
Miami-Dade fire officials declined to comment until an investigation is completed, possibly as soon as Friday.
Moore told me he removed the flag because it was obstructing the ladder controls. One of his routine Saturday tasks is to ``lube the boom'' -- extend the ladder and grease the gears.
``The flag was basically just in the way,'' Moore said.
The flag was placed on another truck, and the shift continued without incident. However, Clark said that during a midday meal, he, Williams and Moore had a philosophical discussion about the symbolism of the Stars and Stripes. All declared that some black Americans have considered it a symbol of oppression.
The three are known in the department for expressing a strongly Afrocentric view of history.
Williams said the conversation was typical for them, and there was no indication anyone else took exception.
But he believes someone in the department who has never appreciated their views took advantage of national grief to concoct the incident.
``The question that should be asked is, if there was a refusal to ride a vehicle -- disobeying a direct order -- why wasn't the disciplinary order enforced at that time? Nothing happened until two or three days later.''
He also wonders how the story leaked to the media so quickly -- including the erroneous report that the three are Muslims.
Their account rings credible to me for another reason.
I've been acquainted with William Clark for over 12 years. He is stridently Afrocentric, frequently expounding on white American racism in the harshest terms. He thrives on controversy.
Over the years, I've been among his favorite rhetorical targets, as he generally regards me as too moderate, too ``co-opted'' by white America.
But we have developed a mutual respect insofar as we each will stand up for our beliefs. And this much, I know: If Clark had taken the stand of which he is accused, he'd say so.
``There was no contrived, preconceived protest,'' Clark told me. ``You know me; I'm a straight shooter, and I would let you know if there was one.''
Williams believes the damage already done is irreversible. ``The truth doesn't even matter anymore. This is not about truth. This is about perceptions, attitudes, dislikes and malicious intent. The public opinion has already been created that these are three horrific people who have no sensitivity.''