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Fatal Deutsche Bank fire report released

August 21, 2008 4:04:42 PM PDT
Blocked stairwells, radio confusion and misinformation about the water supply thwarted efforts to put out a blaze at a condemned ground zero skyscraper that killed two firefighters last year, an internal report said Thursday.To view images from the deadly fire, go to, http://a.abclocal.go.com/images/wabc/cms_exf_2005/news/mondayfire1_082007_1.jpg

Fire officials released the 176-page report along with 40 pages of emergency radio transmissions from more than 100 firefighters who went into the former Deutsche Bank tower on Aug. 18, 2007.

The 26-story Deutsche Bank building was badly damaged and contaminated by toxic dust when the World Trade Center's south tower collapsed into it during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The building was being dismantled when the fire broke out a year ago on the 17th floor. Firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino died of smoke inhalation on the 14th floor.

A grand jury is considering whether to criminally charge contractors or the government agencies overseeing the project.

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said Thursday's report "is not about affixing blame" and his department would conduct further inquiries about its performance before the fire.

But the report detailed a litany of problems fighting the fire that Scoppetta said would have been handled differently if officials had known of the hazards.

Firefighters were told at the scene by construction workers that a standpipe supplying water to fire hoses worked, and 20 minutes were wasted before they realized it was broken, according to the report. It took 13 minutes for workers to call the department, and an additional 67 minutes to get a water supply.

Firefighters sent more than 30 distress signals, including 14 maydays, from inside the burning bank tower, but some weren't heard because they came in at the same time. Scoppetta blamed "a failure of radio discipline" and said firefighters would be trained to allow the urgent signals to come through one at a time, keeping channels clear once one signal is posted.

"Some messages were not being received. Everybody was speaking over them," Scoppetta said.

There was no record of maydays or the less serious "urgent" radio transmissions sent from Beddia and Graffagnino, Scoppetta said.

The report didn't explain why the fire department hadn't inspected the tower, which was being cleaned of toxic waste and dismantled, in over a year. Several other agencies were assigned to inspect the tower daily.

"It was very, very important that the building had not been inspected, and we will deal with that," Scoppetta said.

Careless smoking is believed to have started the fire, which began on the 17th floor. When Beddia and Graffagnino's bodies were found, neither were wearing face masks connected to air tanks, and Beddia's tank had about five minutes left of compressed air inside it, the report said.

Scoppetta said Beddia was probably trying to conserve air while he continued to fight the fire, "and probably thought he still had enough to get to the perimeter and get out."

Firefighters encountered mazelike conditions in the building, including thick plastic sheeting covering toxic debris that made it harder to breathe and narrow stairwells covered with plywood.

"We're having trouble getting up from the stairwells. They have everything boarded up and blocked off," one firefighter told a commander in a radio transmission.

Demolition of the building is now four years behind schedule, and the original $45 million budget for taking it down has tripled.

Planners hope eventually to replace it with one of five office towers that will make up the new trade center.

Since the fire, officials have stepped up inspections, outfitted the tower with safety systems and come up with dozens of proposals intended to make demolition sites safer.

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