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09.05.2007
Many Questions in Ground Zero Fire
As smoke clears, a cloud of frustration takes its place

It was a casualty of September 11, a ghost draped in black that has loomed over Ground Zero for years. It grew all the more terrifying on August 18—swathed in flames that leapt from its belly—and all the more tragic when it claimed the lives of two firefighters from a SoHo firehouse, home of Engine 24 and Ladder 5.

130 Liberty Street, the former Deutsche Bank building, has been beset by delays and controversy since debris from the south tower of the World Trade Center tore a massive gash in the building and caused irreparable structural damage six years ago. What caused a fire on the 17th floor of the building, which spread through much of its upper portions, has yet to be determined, though faulty wiring and cigarettes have both been the target of a full report from the fire department’s Bureau of Fire Investigations.

Investigators are also looking into why a pre-fire plan had not been devised for perhaps the most complicated demolition project in the city’s history, which involves the piece by piece deconstruction of the building while also dealing with a suffusion dangerous toxins, including asbestos and “World Trade Center dust,” a miasma of pulverized metals created by the collapse of the twin towers (“In Deconstruction: 130 Liberty Street,” AN_06.20.2007).

The lack of a pre-fire plan has been partly to blame for the deaths of two firefighters, Robert Beddia, 53, and Joseph Graffagnino, 33, because the labyrinthine system of plywood walls used to keep toxins at bay created unusual and disorienting conditions. Another reason is that the standpipe, which feeds water to the various stories in tall buildings during a fire, had in one place been dismantled. The fire department admitted in an investigation update on August 22 that the standpipe had not been checked since November 1996, when the building was still occupied. The fire department also said in the update that it must visually inspect standpipes every 15 days for buildings under demolition, which had yet to happen. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office announced on August 20 that it has opened its own investigation into the fire, and State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said he is also looking into 130 Liberty Street.

The Department of Buildings (DOB) required Bovis Lend Lease, the general contractor on the project, with maintaining the standpipe. According to a DOB release, a recent investigation of the standpipe on abated floors showed no problems, suggesting it was intact. A 20-foot piece was missing in the basement, which was flooded with water desperately needed by firefighters above. It is not yet known why the pipe section was removed. Since deconstruction began in March, the DOB has inspected 130 Liberty Street 60 times, issuing 19 violations and six stop work orders. “We are not speaking to the press at this time,” a Bovis spokesperson said.

Bovis did speak with the subcontractor in charge of deconstruction, the John Galt Corporation of the Bronx. In a letter obtained by The New York Times and posted on its website on August 23, James Abadie, Bovis’ principal-in-charge at 130 Liberty Street, informed Galt that its contract had been terminated. “Over recent weeks and most notably in the days following the tragic accident that occurred at the Project site on August 18, 2007, Galt has demonstrated an inability to comply with the terms of its Trade Contract with respect to site supervision, maintenance, and Project safety,” he wrote.

The Times reported the day before that Galt was a shadow corporation for two legally suspect companies, Regional Scaffolding and Hoisting Company and Safeway. The latter had mob ties and once of its executives has served two jail terms. Bovis reportedly hired the companies because no other contractors would take the dangerous and uncertain project, especially during a construction boom. “There was only one contractor willing to work on taking down the building, as far as I know,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

Perhaps the one tragic positive to come from the fire at 130 Liberty Street is that the complex system keeping the asbestos and other toxins at bay protected the city from the poisons entombed in the building. The state Environmental Protection Agency, which has been monitoring the site for years, said that no dangerous levels of toxins had been released during the fire.

Though the DOB has determined the building to be structurally sound, no one yet knows when demolition could continue. “We have to let the investigation run its course before we reassess any timelines,” Errol Cockfield, spokesman for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which is overseeing the project, wrote in an email. He said it could take months to clear debris and replace damaged systems to return the building to the same place it was before the fire.

This does not account for the need to find a replacement for Galt, no doubt a challenge given additional problems now surrounding the site, as well as those of the past, such as insurance and labor disputes and environmental concerns, all of which delayed the project for years. The specter of 130 Liberty Street may well remain with the city for some time to come.

Matt Chaban