Volume 20 Issue 17 | September 7 - 13, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Tequila Minsky

Firefighters from East Harlem were down on Liberty St. Tuesday to “decontaminate” other firefighters who are investigating the Aug. 18 fire at the Deutsche Bank building. Firefighters Robert Beddia, 53, below left, and Joseph Graffagnino, 33, were both killed in the blaze.

Downtowners find Deutsche’s ‘alphabet soup’ hard to read

By Josh Rogers and Skye H. McFarlane

A month before two firefighters were killed at the former Deutsche Bank building, Charles Maikish, who was still Downtown’s construction czar, looked at the shrouded building and called it a “tombstone.”

The badly-damaged building had been hovering over the World Trade Center site for almost six years and many were frustrated the demolition work had only begun a few months earlier. The project had been delayed countless times for many reasons — insurance disputes, worker contracts, rejected environmental safety plans, discoveries of human remains and falling debris.

Maikish, who until recently was executive director of the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, told Downtown Express on July 16 that he did not want to take the project over from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp.

“Originally we were reluctant to do it [supervise the Deutsche demolition] because it’s not our core mission,” he said during a tour of the neighborhood his last week in office. He said the Command Center had taken on the Deutsche demo as an “additional responsibility” because it seemed like they were the only agency suited for the job. The search for human remains, Maikish said, was another “additional responsibility” that the L.M.C.C.C. was compelled to tackle.

Maikish has not responded to requests for comment since the fire and current Command Center officials have said little.

Almost three weeks after the fire, the role of the L.M.C.C.C. and the other “alphabet soup of agencies” responsible for the Deutsche Bank building, to use Borough President Scott Stringer’s phrase, remains unclear.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. bought the building from Deutsche Bank for $90 million in 2004 as part of an insurance settlement brokered by George Mitchell, the former U.S. Senate majority leader who has mediated ethnic and religious wars around the world.

The state and city technically share control of the L.M.D.C., but the federally-financed authority was created by former Gov. George Pataki in 2001 as a subsidiary of his economic development office, and the development corporation’s leaders have been selected by Pataki and now Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

The “L.M. triple C,” as it is sometimes called, was created by Pataki and Mayor Mike Bloomberg to coordinate Downtown’s large construction projects and it opened two years ago. The center, though, is funded mostly by the L.M.D.C. so the governor has more influence over it also.

The construction center took over more control of the Deutsche demolition project last summer, after Pataki announced that the L.M.D.C. would disband in a few months. But the federal government quietly blocked the move because it wanted to keep a closer watch on a few hundred million dollars that has not yet been spent by the L.M.D.C. Spitzer, who called the L.M.D.C. an “abject failure” during his campaign, this year announced he would revive the agency and appointed Avi Schick, his top economic development advisor, to be the chairperson.

In May, a 15-foot pipe fell off the Deutsche building and crashed into the next-door firehouse, injuring two firefighters slightly. Schick formed a committee to review “L.M.C.C.C. issues.” In June, Maikish told C.B. 1 that the contractors’ sloppiness switching to a faster cleaning and demolition method led to the pipe accident.

More protections were built to protect the firehouse and the surrounding areas, but apparently no other changes were made from looking at “L.M.C.C.C. issues.” Schick did not mention any changes that were made as a result of the review when Downtown Express asked him about it two weeks ago.

Downtown leaders seem to favor reducing the role of the construction center at the Deutsche. Councilmember Alan Gerson said it had “an inherent conflict of interest” because it is charged with speeding up construction, but it also was one of many agencies monitoring the demolition’s safety. After a meeting with Spitzer and Schick last week, Gerson said the pair acknowledged the jurisdictional confusion and Gerson said he thought they would recommend changes.

Other agencies which appeared to be monitoring Deutsche before the fire included the federal Environment Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the state Dept. of Labor, the city Dept. of Buildings, and the L.M.D.C. In addition, the L.M.D.C. hired private firms to monitor its contractors.

Yet, according to fire investigators, smoking was allowed in a no-smoking building with combustible materials and the building’s standpipe had not been tested in 11 years or inspected for a year.

“[Government officials] just don’t get it,” Maria Smith, a Battery Park City resident, said Tuesday at a C.B. 1 meeting. “They don’t understand what it’s like to live down here. I just don’t think they give a damn.... I wish we could go on strike.”

The next night, Dep. Mayor Edward Skyler told Board 1 members that the city’s Office of Emergency Management will assume L.M.C.C.C.’s responsibility for notifying the neighborhood in case of an emergency at Deutsche.

O.E.M. also supervises and trains Community Emergency Response Teams, but no one contacted the Downtown CERTs the day of the fire even though the L.M.D.C. funded the Battery Park City CERT team’s expansion to residential buildings near Deutsche two years ago because of the demolition.

O.E.M. organized a drill with the B.P.C. and Tribeca CERTs a week after the fire, but when the teams showed up wearing their green helmets and vests, they were stopped when they tried to turn onto Cedar St. It took ten minutes and several calls before the N.Y.P.D. allowed them through to complete the drill.

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