Sunday, August 19, 2007

Who Is To Blame For These Senseless Deaths?

2 firefighter died fighting a fire at the Deutsche Bank Building at 130 Liberty Street across from Ground Zero, joining 343 other fire fighters who died in the pit on that terrible day almost 6 years ago.

Why is the Deutsche Bank Building still standing so long after the rest of Ground Zero has been cleaned up (WTC 7, for instance, destroyed by the 9/11 attacks, has already been replaced with another skyscraper and occupied by tenants) and who is to blame for yesterday's tragedy.

It sounds like the firemen who fought yesterday's fire know:

Two firefighters were killed yesterday when a nightmarish inferno engulfed a vacant skyscraper overlooking Ground Zero that was left decimated by the 9/11 attacks.

Fallen heroes Joe Graffagnino, 34, and Robert Beddia, 53, ran out of oxygen while trapped inside the former Deutsche Bank building, a maze-like warren of debris, sources said.

They died steps from The Pit where 343 of their brethren perished when the twin towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001 - including 11 from their own Engine 24/Ladder 5 firehouse.


Graffagnino, an eight-year veteran from Brooklyn, and Beddia, a 23-year veteran from Staten Island, were running a hose up when they got trapped on the 14th floor, where they were found unconscious.

They suffered smoke inhalation that caused cardiac arrest, officials said.

They had air tanks, but it appears the oxygen ran out before they were found, a source said.

A paramedic who struggled to save one of the victims said it was a hopeless situation.

"He was dead from the moment they brought him out of the building," the emergency worker said. "We tried everything ... but nothing helped."

The loss seemed senseless to some firefighters.

"The city lets that building sit there for what, going on six years, and now two more firefighters die?" said one who worked with Graffagnino and Beddia. "It makes me sick."

Battling the flames was harrowing because of the condition of the partly demolished building - including a lack of water outlets inside.

"This fire was a nightmare. The standpipes for water were out of commission because the building was being torn apart," said a firefighter.

"Every floor was wrapped in heavy plastic sheeting because of the asbestos abatement work being done.

"Only one of the two construction elevators was working.

"Getting in and out was a mess - and two men died for this cursed building," the firefighter said.

Another said, "It was a maze inside. The building was a shell filled with combustibles."

Flaming plywood that had been nailed across windows destroyed on 9/11 fell to the ground, close to passersby and fire trucks, said witnesses.

Glass showered onto sidewalks as much as three hours after the fire first erupted.

More than four hours after the first report, it was upgraded to a seven-alarm.

The blaze was still not under control when the deaths of Graffagnino and Beddia were announced at NYU Downtown Hospital.

The widow of one of the men was inconsolable when she arrived.

"She was screaming, 'Please, let me know, is he dead?'" said Evelyn Franco, who was with a sick relative in the ER when the firefighters' families showed up.

"She was shouting, 'Oh my God, please, don't take him away.'She was hysterical. The place was full of firefighters. There were hundreds of them."

There's going to be shitloads of anger from firefighters over this. This building should have been pulled down long ago. The collapse of 2 World Trade Center tore a 15 story gash in the front of the building and destroyed the lobby. The owners of the building, Deutsche Bank, argued that the building was uninhabitable and had to be destroyed. The insurance company argued that the building was recoverable and could be fixed.

In the meantime, two years passed and conditions in the building worsened. Black mold developed inside the building from water damage caused by the attacks. Asbestos, dioxin, lead, chromium and four other hazardous substances were also found inside. It finally became clear even to the insurance company that the building could not be recovered. On February 27, 2004, an agreement was announced to settle the dispute between the two parties and later that year the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation agreed to take the land and begin destruction of the building.

But then there was the problem of human remains. Remains from the 9/11 attacks were first found inside the building in 2002. In September 2005, more human remains were found on the roof. In March 2006, workers removing toxic waste from the building found more human remains inside. 9/11 victims' families called for a complete search of the building to see if the building contained more human remains. In April of 2006 that search was done and 766 bone fragments were found on the roof of the building. Why the whole building search wasn't completed in 2002 after the first human remains were found inside is a mystery, but the remains recovery process has also delayed the destruction of the building.

And then there was the dilemma of how to get the building down. Loaded with toxic waste, residents of the area argued that the building had to be taken down very carefully so that the surrounding area was not contaminated by hazardous materials. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, purchasers of the building back in 2004, argued that the building was not contaminated with toxic waste and could simply be imploded. The mayor, ever a billionaire buddy, sided with the LMDC that the quickest and safest way to take the building down was to simply blow it up. Congressman Jerrold Nadler argued that the building was a toxic nightmare that had to be taken down very carefully:

According to the Deutsche Bank court documents, "Environmental test results show that a combination of contaminants known to be hazardous to human health, in quantities and concentrations unparalleled in any other building designed for office use, permeate the entire structure at levels which exceed by up to thousands of times the levels considered appropriate... For example, the concentration of asbestos present at certain locations in the building is almost 150,000 times the level considered appropriate."


Given the unprecedented level of contamination present in the Deutsche Bank Building, residents and workers in Lower Manhattan are concerned that their health will be once again put at risk when the building is torn down. Phil McArdle, the Health and Safety officer of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, has expressed concern for the safety of firefighters at neighboring Firehouse 1010. There are also concerns that people throughout New York will again be exposed to the contamination as materials removed from the building are transported through neighborhoods on the way to landfills.

"During the original WTC clean up effort, the EPA failed to protect public health or enforce applicable environmental and counter terrorism public safety standards. Residents and workers are now sick because EPA failed to do its job. The people of New York are still waiting for a comprehensive and effective environmental testing and clean up program. A class action lawsuit has even been filed in federal court to get the EPA to do its job, and do it right," said Nadler.

Nadler recommends that the following measures must be taken to protect people living and working in Lower Manhattan: All test results from the building, unfiltered by government agencies, must be made public, for example on a website updated daily. Additional real-time testing of all contaminants known to be present in the building must be conducted in the surrounding area to detect any contamination released during the demolition. A disinterested, independent party must monitor the entire operation. Contingency plans must be put in place, and enforced, in the event that any of these contaminants escape during demolition. The hazardous waste from the site must be properly handled so that there is no release into the community during transport, and it must be disposed of in a legally licensed hazardous waste facility. In short, the site must be handled in a public and transparent manner, consistent with all applicable federal environmental and counterterrorism public safety laws. The EPA must also conduct comprehensive testing of all buildings contaminated by the collapse of the World Trade Center, and it must test for all substances known to present, such as those documented at the Deutsche Bank.

"We know thousands of firefighters who were present at the World Trade Center on 9/11 have already become sick. Because we have this unfortunate advance notice of the disastrous effects of the exposure to World Trade Center contaminants, the government would be knowingly poisoning people if it did not make certain that this tear down is done correctly.

Nadler and residents of the area won the argument - the building was to be dismantled rather than imploded. The NY Times, in a story in yesterday's paper, described the arduous, painstaking process:

The New York base of Deutsche Bank at the time is now being dismantled.

That is different from being demolished. The building is being taken apart almost piece by piece, something demolition experts say has been done before.

What is a first is the complete removal of a building so large and so badly contaminated by hazardous substances. And it is happening under the wary eyes of regulators, neighbors and even the Wall Street types who will someday fill the building that is scheduled to take this one’s place.

So, day after day this summer, workers with acetylene torches are going floor by floor, slicing through the steel beams, the horizontal parts of the building’s skeleton. With help from small tractorlike machines, they are pulling down the beams and the steel columns they are attached to.

Then they are cutting the beams and columns into smaller pieces and loading them into trash-hauling bins that a crane lowers to the street.

Working their way down from the top of what was once a 41-story building, the workers reached the 26th floor on Tuesday morning.

They were cutting into the beams at the southwest corner of that floor, and the two-and-a-half-inch-thick concrete floor slab was vibrating. That was because a mechanical excavator — another tractorlike machine, with a jackhammer mounted on a movable front arm — was breaking through the slab on the southeast corner.

The broken pieces went into another trash-hauling bin and the crane took them away, too. The workers can dismantle one floor every four days or so.

A separate team is working its way through the building, removing the interiors and scrubbing away any contaminants that may remain.

Consultants to the development corporation said more than two years ago that besides asbestos, the building had excessive levels of seven hazardous substances, including dioxin, lead and chromium.

Now those floors have been reduced to their structural elements: naked columns and beams. The walls that once defined offices are gone. So are the plate-glass windows that once looked out on the trade center across the street. So are the wires that connected computers and phones and brought in electricity.

It is thought that one of the acetylene torches that are used to dismantle the building may have started yesterday's fire.

And now, 2 more fire fighters have joined the 343 of their brothers who died across the street on 9/11.

This is a shame.

It did not have to happen.

While the mayor sanctimoniously talks about the "sacrifice" these two firefighters made yesterday fighting this fire, he needs to look in the mirror and ask himself just who helped contribute to those sacrifices.

But the mayor is not the only person complicit in this tragedy.

Let's not forget that Deutsche Bank, the insurance company, the LMDC, Governor Pataki, Shelly Silver and a bunch of other pols contributed to the various impasse that have kept this building up nearly six years after the 9/11 attacks took down WTC 1, WTC 2, and WTC 7.

POSTSCRIPT: Fiterman Hall, a building that is part of the Borough of Manhattan Community College, was contaminated on 9/11 by the destruction of WTC 7 and has also been the subject of political and economic wrangling. Like the Deutsche Bank Building, it also still has not been completely cleaned up. You can see a post-9/11 history of that building here.

Let me see, the WTC, which had steel beams, was brought down by fires caused by jet fuel, basically modified kerosene, which does not burn hot enough to melt steel beams, but this building, which was burning from acetylene torches, which primary use is to cut steel at high temperatures, and it didn't collapse?
lew, now I hear that it may have been a cigarette that started the fire. It's still a rumor, but supposedly a construction worker carelessly discarded a lit cigarette near flammable material. Dunno, maybe that's bullshit too...

As for the comparison to the WTC, I'm not sure what you're saying. Can you explain a bit more?
Everyone is afraid to say this: But, let's not forget the 9/11 victim's families in the "blame game". They stalled the process just as much as the government and the insurance company. Human remains should never trump the safety of the living. It's time to move on, accept the fact that people are no longer here, and rebuild.

It is an embarassment how slow the rebuilding process has been.
You have a point about that, anonymous. But the majority of the delay came from wrangling between the building owner and the insurance company over what to do with the building (nearly three years of delays.) I don't know the exact amount of time that remains searches took, but I don't think it was three years. Still, you're right to say the needs of the living trump the memories of the dead.
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