Volume 20 Issue 15 | Aug. 31 - Sept. 6, 2007
Deutsche demo firm grilled, but gives few answers

By Josh Rogers

Similar to Mark McGwire’s defense against steroid accusations two years ago, Bovis Lend Lease executives said Wednesday that they did not come to a community meeting Wednesday to talk about the past – in other words what led to the deaths of two firefighters Aug. 18 at the former Deutsche Bank building.

When Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver asked the execs in charge of dismantling Deutsche whether they were asserting their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves, Mark Melson, who supervises Bovis’s offices in the Northeast, didn’t answer directly but he did say he didn’t want to compromise the investigation into the fire.

Robert Morgenthau, Manhattan’s district attorney, has begun a criminal investigation into Bovis and its subcontractor, John Galt Corp. The F.D.N.Y. and the agency that hired Bovis, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., are also conducting inquiries.

The L.M.D.C. bought the damaged and contaminated building across from the World Trade Center site in 2004 for $90 million and Bovis could get $130 million to finish taking it down. It was originally 41 stories and is now down to 26.

Five days after the fatal fire, a Galt worker lost control of a 300-pound piece of machinery, which plunged 23 floors through a wooden shed, injuring two more firefighters seriously. Galt and Bovis were working to secure debris on the site -- ostensibly to make it safer until demolition work is allowed to resume.

Melson said Bovis has always been a “good neighbor” Wednesday but he did not answer questions as to why the firm’s six supervisors allowed smoking in a building with combustible materials, why Bovis committed six Buildings Dept. violations this year and why they did not move against Galt sooner, even though Galt committed even more fire and safety violations than Bovis.

He did say all of Bovis’ violations have been rectified. They include letting large amounts of combustible material accumulate (June 6) and failure to remove combustible debris from areas where sparks from blow torches were landing (Aug. 1).

“We can’t answer questions that are related directly to the ongoing investigations,” Melson said at one point. He repeated different versions of that phrase several times throughout the evening.

Immediately after the meeting at 250 Broadway Melson and James Abadie, who heads Bovis’s New York office, slipped out a side door and did not answer reporters’ questions.

Joseph Graffagnino, whose son Joseph, 33, was killed trying to put out the fire two weeks ago, said he came to the meeting hoping for answers.

“I’m more interested in what happened in the past, but they refused to answer,” he said. He declined to comment on whether he trusted Bovis to continue working on the demolition.

Melson proudly told the audience “we’re not going anywhere,” meaning the firm was going to stick out the difficult Deutsche demolition and would not run away, but some attendees made it clear that was precisely what they were hoping for.

“You shouldn’t have the hubris to say you’re not going anywhere,” said Bruce Ehrmann, a Community Board 1 member.

Mark Scherzer, a Downtown resident who has had debris he’s certain is from Deutsche fall on his building several times over the last year, said it was unbelievable that Bovis only became disillusioned with Galt after firefighters were killed and seriously hurt.

“There’s been this long trail of incidents – the pipe falling through the firehouse [in May, injuring two slightly] -- that might have been cause for disillusionment,” he told the Bovis execs.

As for the standpipe that was not working on the day of the fire, Abadie did not offer an explanation, but he said it would be repaired by Friday.

[Jim Long, an F.D.N.Y. spokesperson, said the standpipe of another building damaged on 9/11, Fiterman Hall, was inspected last week and it is working. The sprinkler system was broken in 2001 and Long said it will not be fixed for the demolition, which could begin this year. Long said inspectors will return to Fiterman every two weeks until the building is down.]

Melson and Abadie denied there was widespread drinking and a bar set up in the building, as was reported in the Daily News last week, but they did not dispute there was smoking. The Fire Dept. concluded this week that the fire was started by a cigarette, even though there was a no-smoking rule at the site.

Abadie said he had seen the picture of the bar in the Daily News four months ago and the report was bogus. He seemed to imply the photo was doctored before the News got it, but he did not elaborate.
He also said Bovis was changing personnel on the project but did not elaborate on that either.

The firm has apparently now seen enough go wrong to put it’s “A-team” on the project, transferring one of its star supervisors from the World Trade Center transportation hub to the Deutsche building across Liberty St.

Last Tuesday, Silver convened a private meeting with local elected officials, a few C.B. 1 members, residents and L.M.D.C. officials including Avi Schick, the agency’s chairperson and an appointee of Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Schick, in response to a question, said he was trying to get Bovis to put its “A-team” at Deutsche, according to Pat Moore of C.B. 1 and one other attendee who requested anonymity.

Two days later, the machinery crashed, injuring the firefighters, and Bovis kicked Galt off the site. Silver’s group reconvened this Tuesday, with Spitzer also attending. Schick informed the group that Bovis indeed had transferred at least one person to Deutsche. Scott Stringer, Manhattan’s borough president, confirmed that Schick said Bovis was transferring top personnel to the project.

Several attendees said Spitzer’s presence this week had a positive influence on the meeting.

“Avi kept spinning last week,” said Moore, referring to his statements at both the private meeting and a public emergency meeting, which Bovis was invited to, but did not attend.

Schick’s spokesperson declined to comment on either private meeting.

Moore, who lives adjacent to the Deutsche building, said she won’t stop worrying about debris hitting her building until the demolition is complete. “I’m concerned until you show me,” she said. “We were told not to be concerned before — and guess what?”

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