Image: Deadly fire
Chris Hondros  /  Getty Images
Firefighters bring out equipment on a stretcher at the scene of a seven-alarm fire at the abandoned Deutsche Bank building on Saturday.
msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 8/19/2007 10:05:05 PM ET 2007-08-20T02:05:05

Fighting a fire in a high-rise office building next the World Trade Center site was complicated by a lack of water and little easy access in the tower that has stood abandoned since the terror attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

Two firefighters died battling the blaze that started Saturday in the former Deutsche Bank building, which was damaged by falling wreckage from the collapsing trade center towers and contaminated by toxic dust and human remains.

Investigators did not believe the fire’s cause was electrical, and said demolition crews working Saturday had not been using torches.

Fire marshals could not enter the building until Sunday because small pockets of fire were still burning, but they had been questioning witnesses, including an elevator operator who first reported the blaze.

Investigators also were interested in graffiti inside a work shed that made reference to a burning building, but the blaze had not been deemed suspicious, fire department spokesman Frank Gribbon said.

Difficult conditions
The hundreds of emergency workers sent to the building encountered immediate difficulties.

The blaze began about a dozen floors up and burned on multiple floors, but because the building has been largely gutted and is being dismantled, the only ways up to those floors were a construction elevator on the outside of the building and stairs inside.

In addition, the building’s water supply system was dry, forcing firefighters to use ropes to pull hoses to the upper floors.

“The standpipe was not operating. We don’t know why yet,” fire department spokesman Frank Gribbon said Sunday.

The cause of the standpipe failure also was under investigation.

City officials said the building’s structure was secure and in no danger of falling.

A spokeswoman for the main contractor, Bovis Lend Lease, declined to comment on the standpipe. It was not immediately clear who was responsible for inspecting it.

Officials said air-quality tests in the neighborhood were negative for asbestos and other contaminants after the fire.

Anti-asbestos materials blocked access
Besides the water failure, authorities said some of the materials being used to prevent toxic materials from escaping from the structure may have worsened the situation. More than 10 floors of the skyscraper had been sealed off with polyurethane sheets to contain asbestos, lead and other materials that came from the trade center collapse.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer said the protective materials were there because of federal Environmental Protection Agency requirements, but a spokeswoman for the agency said it was a state labor requirement.

“It is standard operating procedure to put up these kinds of barriers when you’re doing an asbestos abatement job,” EPA spokeswoman Bonnie Bellow said.

Image: Bank building fire
David Karp  /  AP
Smoke rises from the abandoned Deutsche Bank Building, center, bordering ground zero in in New York City on Saturday.
There were also large quantities of plywood and other combustible materials in the building, and firefighters had to navigate a maze of debris, authorities said.

The once 40-story building has been reduced to 26 stories as crews take apart its steel skeleton by about one story per week. The demolition had been expected to be completed by the end of the year.

The firefighters who died, Robert Beddia, 53, and Joseph Graffagnino, 33, were trapped on the 14th floor and inhaled a great deal of smoke, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. More than 50 other firefighters suffered minor injuries, the fire department said.

The collapse of the twin Trade Center towers across the street killed 343 firefighters. Eleven of them came from the same firehouse where Beddia and Graffagnino were based.

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