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Criminal case opened in fire at ground zero site

New York prosecutors opened a criminal investigation Tuesday into the blaze that killed two firefighters at a ground zero skyscraper that had a broken water supply system as it was being dismantled.
Demolition Work Continues Near Ground Zero After Fatal Fire
NEW YORK - AUGUST 23: A firefigher gestures near a pile of tubing lying behind police tape after a partial scaffolding collapse at the former Deutsche Bank building August 23, 2007 in New York City. Debris that fell from the building injured two firefighters even as another was being buried from an earlier fire at the troubled building. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)Chris Hondros / Getty Images North America
/ Source: The Associated Press

Prosecutors opened a criminal investigation Tuesday into the blaze that killed two firefighters at a ground zero skyscraper that had a broken water supply system as it was being dismantled.

The defunct standpipe pumped thousands of gallons into the basement, leaving firefighters without enough water to fight the fire that started Saturday on the 17th floor.

“Nobody at this point knows whether that was a contributing factor to the two tragic deaths or not. That’s what an investigation is for,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau and State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said their offices each would investigate the cause of the blaze.

Meanwhile, several agencies sought to deflect blame for the building’s failed water supply system, the response to the fire and who was responsible for inspecting the tower.

State officials who own the building said the tower wasn’t equipped with a city sprinkler system because environmental regulators had ordered that they not be in the building, which still contains multiple floors of asbestos, lead and World Trade Center dust.

“Every step that we take in this building is overseen by multiple layers of regulation from the federal to the local level,” said Errol Cockfield, spokesman for the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which bought the tower three years ago.

City Department of Buildings officials were reviewing their records Tuesday to determine whether the pipe had been tested by filling it with water and examining its pressure, or visually checked on every floor. A piece of the water supply line was found unattached and lying on the basement floor after the fire.

Fire Department and environmental officials didn’t immediately comment Tuesday.

Official: Inspections had stopped
The head of the city’s fire union said the Fire Department had told the local firehouse over a year ago to stop inspecting the former Deutsche Bank building’s standpipe system because of health concerns in the toxic building.

“They were told that they should no longer do that because the air quality in that building was not safe,” said Stephen Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association.

The contractor, responding to charges that firefighters might have walked into a maze of protective sheeting and plywood covering toxic materials, said that senior fire officials were given detailed layouts of each floor at the fire scene.

Bloomberg defended the department’s decision to send more than 100 firefighters up into the building to fight the blaze, saying they bravely improvised in a crisis situation.

Firefighters Joseph Graffagnino and Robert Beddia died of smoke inhalation on the 14th floor of the building after their oxygen tanks ran out.

City officials have said that workers routinely took smoking breaks near the spot where the fire started; water heaters for decontamination showers were also nearby.

Contractor to help with investigation
The 41-story tower has loomed as an eyesore above ground zero since Sept. 11, 2001, when the trade center’s south tower partially collapsed into it, tearing a 15-story gash and leaving toxic dust, debris and bits of human remains. Its cleanup and demolition was postponed for four years by lawsuits over who would pay for it, concerns that the dismantling would pollute the neighborhood and the ongoing discovery of victims’ remains.

Bovis Lend Lease, the main contractor overseeing the tower’s cleanup and demolition, offered its first public statement Tuesday on the fire, saying the company “has and will continue to make ourselves available to all the coordinating agencies from the city and state with their investigations into the cause of the tragic fire.” The company extended its “deepest sympathies” to the families of the dead firefighters, the company said.

Officials for John Galt Corp., the subcontractor that employs the majority of workers at the building, didn’t return a message Tuesday.