Anniversary of deadly Deutsche Bank fire

August 18, 2008 5:41:48 PM PDT
Every two weeks, firefighters ascend a 26-story condemned, black-shrouded skyscraper, checking its carefully marked exit signs, rebuilt water supply system and wide-open corridors.To view pictures from the Deutsche Bank tragedy, CLICK HERE.

They wear protective suits on floors where toxic dust from the World Trade Center' still lies.

A year ago, more than 100 firefighters ran into the same building as it burned and had trouble finding their way out, many jumping out windows onto scaffolds. Thick, plastic coating meant to contain asbestos made it hard to breathe. Firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino died on the building's 14th floor when their oxygen supply ran out.

New York City officials have dedicated plaques in the memory of two firefighters killed a year ago at a ground zero skyscraper.

The ceremony was held Monday at a Greenwich Village firehouse attended by family and friends of firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino. The two men died in a fire on the 14th floor of the former tower.

The Aug. 18, 2007, blaze exposed the incompetence of multiple government agencies assigned to inspect the building, which was being dismantled. The fire also unmasked a questionable subcontractor and the Fire Department's failure to point out dozens of hazards before the blaze, including a break in a pipe meant to supply water to fire hoses.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at the ceremony that the city won't compromise safety for speed as the tower continues to be dismantled.

The Aug. 18, 2007, fire at the troubled former Deutsche Bank tower across from ground zero exposed the incompetence of multiple government agencies assigned to near-daily inspections of the building, which was being dismantled. The blaze also unmasked a questionable subcontractor and the Fire Department's failure to point out dozens of hazards - including a break in a pipe meant to supply water to fire hoses - before the blaze.

"The community had been raising red flags for months and sometimes years" about the toxic tower, said environmental activist Kimberly Flynn. "It's a mystery to us how you can have the number of inspectors that ... were practically living in that building and have that level of disaster."

Manhattan prosecutors are preparing to conclude soon whether the failures before the blaze at the state-owned building were bureaucratic blunders or crimes. A grand jury has been meeting for nine months, deciding whether to lodge criminal negligence charges against contractors, the government or both.

Officials have stepped up inspections, outfitted the tower with state-of-the-art fire safety systems and come up with dozens of new proposals intended to make demolition sites safer. But they say the building posed challenges like no other.

The tower "is a tragically unique building," said deputy Mayor Edward Skyler. "It exposed an area that the city had never looked at this comprehensively. When we looked at it, we found a lot of areas that could be improved."

The Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the rebuilding agency that owns the tower, has switched subcontractors and resumed cleaning the building of toxic debris - but not simultaneously demolishing other floors at the same time, a practice the city opposes.

The city has pledged to have the building's multiple regulators talk to each other more, and inspectors will be cross-trained to spot any kind of hazard. Firefighters now inspect the building regularly; a fire chief is assigned full-time to the site and two other nearby buildings that still need to be demolished. Three fire officers were reassigned in the week after the blaze.

The original, $45 million budget for taking down the building has tripled, and the project is four years behind schedule.

Planners hope eventually to supplant it with one of five office towers replacing the trade center.

The blaze is believed to have started when a construction worker discarded a cigarette after the work day ended.

The spark shed light on multiple lapses.

Regulators - including the city Buildings Department and federal, state and city environmental agencies - had not corrected multiple fire hazards. Among them were blocked stairwells and a negative air pressure system that sucked the fire downward. A standpipe had been cut into pieces in the basement, leaving firefighters without a water supply for an hour after they entered the building.

The Fire Department was required to inspect the site every 15 days but hadn't been there in more than a year. The department had not prepared a fire plan, as it has for more than 200 other sites that pose special challenges.

"This wasn't any building. This was a public spectacle. This was a high-rise, toxic, vacant building that was under deconstruction," said Stephen Cassidy, president of the city's firefighters' union.

Prosecutors are looking at how subcontractor John Galt Corp. was hired, though community leaders and a city agency had recommended against it because the company had no history of demolition or abatement experience. Investigators have suggested Galt employees were transplanted from another contractor whose former owner had reputed mob ties.

Galt - dismissed a week after the August blaze - and the general contractor, Bovis Lend Lease, haven't commented on details of the investigation, citing the prosecutor's probe.

A year later, hundreds of workers are on double shifts at the building, now scheduled to be removed by next summer - the original date was 2005. The investment bank JPMorgan Chase & Co. had planned to build a tower on the same spot, although the land won't be available by a promised timeline.

The building had a scandalous history before the fire, becoming a looming eyesore that symbolized the inertia of post-Sept. 11 rebuilding.

The trade center's south tower collapsed into the building on Sept. 11, 2001, leaving human remains that went undiscovered for years, pieces of aircraft and hazardous trade center dust.

The LMDC bought the tower three years later to end squabbles between the bank and insurer over who was responsible for taking it down. Federal, state and city agencies spent another year approving plans to remove the toxic debris without polluting the neighborhood.

Hundreds of body parts of Sept. 11 victims were discovered at the tower beginning in 2006. Last year, a steel pipe from the building fell through the roof of a firehouse next door. A piece of equipment fell off a high floor and injured two firefighters a few days after the blaze.

Given the building's past, neighbors still eye it warily.

"We cannot afford to have anyone else lose their life," said Julie Menin, president of the area's community board. "If that means it's going to take a little bit longer to take the building down, then it's going to take a little bit longer."

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