The water supply system in an abandoned skyscraper near ground zero where two firefighters died in a fire over the weekend was “not operational,” city officials said Monday.
The old Deutsche Bank building has been plagued with citations and received a violation for failure to maintain the system after fire investigators found a section of the water network, known as the standpipe, unattached and lying on the floor in the basement.
The building has been a toxic wasteland since it was damaged the morning of the World Trade Center attack six years ago and was being dismantled floor by floor. It once stood 41 stories, but demolition crews had whittled it to 26 by Saturday, when the fire erupted.
Fire investigators determined the blaze began in an area on the 17th floor, where workers would stop before entering and exiting a chamber for decontamination, the city said. Fire marshals had spoken to witnesses who said workers would “smoke and extinguish cigarettes” in the area, which was near the construction elevator that they used to access the floor.
The city said there was also some electrical equipment there, including water heaters for decontamination showers.
Cause of blaze unknown
Investigators still do not know how the blaze started, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement.
“At this point we do not know the cause of the fire, but full and comprehensive investigations are under way,” he said. “We are using every possible resource to find out how this fire started and what went wrong.”
Separate investigations will determine how the fire started and what circumstances led to the deaths of the two firefighters, the mayor said. Officials also were trying to sort out who was responsible for which issue; multiple local, state and federal agencies had a hand in the decontamination and deconstruction, described by the city as “unusually complex.”
In working buildings, the Fire Department is responsible for checking standpipes every five years, department spokesman Jim Long said. Building owners typically maintain them in between.
The city could not say Monday when the water network had last been inspected or tested, but the Fire Department said the building had been issued at least one other violation related to standpipe problems.
The hundreds of firefighters who responded to the blaze quickly found that the building’s main water supply did not work, forcing them to awkwardly hoist hoses to the upper floors where the fire was tearing through the skyscraper. The building’s status as a demolition site only added to the confusion.
The building’s owner, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., bought the tower three years ago to take over the removal project. As the demolition proceeded, the city Buildings Department had to issue a separate permit for each floor before it could be taken down.
Authorities said each floor permit mentioned the requirement for a working standpipe to be present, but it was apparently never tested to ensure water could be delivered. The last permit was issued as recently as July 31.
The LMDC said it was still collecting information about what may have gone wrong.
“Two firefighters lost their lives — we’re all trying to figure out what happened at this time,” LMDC chairman Avi Schick said. “Nobody knows.”
Questions over fire fighting effort
The tragic loss also raised questions about why emergency responders would enter an empty building that was long ago condemned.
That sentiment was echoed in a frantic call from a supervisor while firefighters desperately battled the blaze. “I don’t give a s--- about the building. I give a s--- about the guys,” according to a transcript of one transmission, obtained by the Daily News.
In another call, a firefighter said: “We’re all running low on air and we’re really taking a beating.”
Jack McDonnell, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, said there was no choice other than to send firefighters into the building.
“It never could have been contained from the outside,” he said. “The building could have collapsed, endangering lives and property.”
Apart from the water system, the LMDC had racked up citations before the fire from city building inspectors, for complaints including debris falling from the building and excessive amounts of combustible debris and plywood stacked around the site.
Some of the issues raised in the complaints and violations foreshadowed complications that firefighters faced when they responded to the blaze. Along with the water problems, emergency responders had difficulty navigating around the debris inside the building, and in many places it was easy to get disoriented, they said.
More than 50 injured
Firefighters Joseph Graffagnino and Robert Beddia got lost on the 14th floor as their air tanks ran out. They inhaled smoke and died of cardiac arrest; their funerals are Thursday and Friday. More than 50 firefighters suffered minor injuries, the department said.
More than 10 floors of the skyscraper had been sealed off with polyurethane to keep toxic dust containing asbestos, lead and trade center materials from leaking out into the air. Gov. Eliot Spitzer theorized that the protective materials “may in fact have made this fire harder to fight.”
He said the polyurethane was there because of federal Environmental Protection Agency requirements; a spokeswoman for the agency said it was a state labor rule.
Officials also said firefighters were hindered by plywood barriers that blocked stairway access to the floors that had yet to be decontaminated. Some air-quality tests were still pending Monday, but results for many samples had come back normal.