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Buildings examined after fatal ground zero fire

New York City ordered fire inspectors to examine hundreds of buildings under construction or demolition after an investigation found numerous planning and safety failures at an abandoned ground zero skyscraper where two firefighters died.
Deutche Bank Health
Smoke rises from the abandoned Deutsche Bank Building, center, on Aug. 18 during what would turn into a seven-alarm fire that would claim the lives of two New York City firefighters.David Karp / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The city ordered fire inspectors to examine hundreds of buildings under construction or demolition after an investigation found numerous planning and safety failures at an abandoned ground zero skyscraper where two firefighters died.

Three senior fire officials said to be responsible for lapses at the former Deutsche Bank tower were also reassigned, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned Monday that more action could follow.

Officials said the fire appeared to have been started by a cigarette, likely from workers who were dismantling the skyscraper and cleaning it of toxic debris floor by floor. The building, which once stood 41 stories, was heavily damaged in the Sept. 11 attacks.

When workers began taking it down earlier this year, the fire department failed to conduct the required regular inspections at the tower, Bloomberg said.

Had officials performed those checks, they might have seen conditions that contributed to the Aug. 18 fire, including a broken water supply system, a maze of sealed-off stairwells, combustible debris throughout the building and signs that workers regularly ignored the no-smoking rule on site.

'Not excusable'
Bloomberg said it was “not excusable” that the department failed to properly inspect the building, especially after repeated urging from at least one fire official who spotted numerous potential hazards in the skyscraper and sent memos about his concerns.

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta ordered deputy chiefs to inspect “any large building” under construction or demolition in their divisions and to review firefighting plans at every building in their areas. The inspections would cover 420 structures citywide.

Bloomberg noted that the Manhattan district attorney and state attorney general are investigating.

“This is a case where the procedure and the reasons for it were clear, and it wasn’t followed, and that cannot happen,” he said.

The city has asked the FBI for help in determining how and when the building’s water supply network, known as the standpipe, broke.

Fire marshals investigating the blaze found pieces of the standpipe unattached in the tower’s basement, and the valve was discovered to have been turned off at some point. Portions of the pipe were sent to be analyzed by FBI metallurgists in Quantico, Va.

After the fire broke out on the 17th floor, more than 100 firefighters rushed into the building, including Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino, who died of cardiac arrest from smoke inhalation.

Many unknowns
Bloomberg said the city believed the response was appropriate, considering what officials knew at the time.

“But it’s what they didn’t know that contributed to the enormous difficulties they encountered,” he added.

Among those unknowns: Some of the building’s floors were still being decontaminated of asbestos and other toxins, and were sealed off to prevent leakage. Officials believe that this created atypical air pressure that caused the flames to behave differently.

High-rise fires generally burn upward, but officials said this fire did the opposite — it was quickly sucked downward, putting the base of operations on the 14th floor at unexpected risk.

It was a situation that might have been noted in a pre-fire plan for the building, which apparently was not created, despite urging from Battalion Chief William Siegel in 2005. Scoppetta said fire officials instead relied on a common citywide plan for fighting high-rise fires.

Bloomberg said he had ordered the city’s Department of Environmental Protection to devise a procedure for notifying the fire department when decontaminations are taking place that could affect fire response.

He said the city was also investigating whether the Department of Buildings bore responsibility in the inspections failures.

The fire officials who were reassigned include a deputy chief who received memos from Siegel and a battalion chief for the Lower Manhattan area where the building stands. A captain at the local firehouse, which is next door to the toxic tower, was also moved.

A fire union leader said the three were being used as scapegoats. John McDonnell, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, said any decision not to inspect the building “would have been done at a much higher level” because of its unique status as a contaminated site.