Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel
Joseph Graffagnino, Sr. speaking at the rally beside the Deutsche Bank building. His son was one of the firefighters killed in last August’s fire.
Building safety problems threaten everyone, not just my fiancé
By Victoria Grantham
On Saturday I attended a rally organized by Joseph Graffagnino Sr., the father of one of two firefighters killed in the Deutsche Bank blaze last summer. Over 100 demonstrators at the condemned bank tower urged city officials to establish and enforce strict safety guidelines for New York City buildings to prevent further disasters.
As a longtime resident of Lower Manhattan and the fiancée of a firefighter in Engine 24/ Ladder 5, the house which lost two men in the fatal August 2007 blaze, I have a personal stake in the issue, but media reports which characterized the gathering as a demonstration solely for firefighters and construction workers have missed the point. It was really a call for improved building safety standards to protect all New Yorkers.
It has been seven years since the Deutsche Bank skyscraper was first damaged in the Trade Center attacks and nearly a full year since the inferno in the empty tower blindsided firefighters and claimed Joey Graffagnino and Bobby Beddia’s lives. Mind-blowingly, the structure still stands, shrouded in black netting a testament to corruption, incompetence, and unnecessary loss.
Federal regulators have accused contractors, who were dismantling the building, of blatantly ignoring safety risks. A grand jury investigation is now underway. Yet, since the Deutsche Bank disaster, 16 more people have lost their lives in building catastrophes across the city. It’s true that firefighters and construction workers are on the frontlines in these accidents and are most often the ones injured or killed, but faulty cranes, weak building foundations, and raging fires in complexes which fail to meet code endanger everyone.
On Saturday Joseph Graffagnino Sr. and his family including his wife, Rosemarie, and Joey’s widow, Linda took action. They put their grief to the side and returned to the doomed site for the first time since the fatal fire in order to call for change.
“This must stop now,” said civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel at the rally. “New Yorkers cannot become collateral damage as a result of the construction boom. You can have development, but you must have safety. You can’t have one without the other.” With the jack hammering and construction noise all around, I could barely hear him.
Some demonstrators, wearing shirts proclaiming their firehouse loyalties, held signs calling for the dismissal of city officials, others criticized corner cutting. After the first round of speeches, we hit the streets and marched to City Hall.
Looking at Joey’s mother en route, I recalled an image I had of her from her 33-year-old son’s funeral last summer. I’d watched as a construction worker a man who’d operated an external elevator and helped many firemen escape the blaze approached her to extend his condolences. Less than ten seconds into their exchange, this massive man, nearly twice her size, slumped down and sobbed on her shoulder. Incredibly, she stood firm and comforted him.
Before 9/11, before my fiancé became a firefighter, I was oblivious to building issues. Now I’m acutely attuned to them. Obviously, I have more at stake than most the success or failure of these efforts could mean life with my husband or life mourning his loss but I’ve also come to realize that building safety impacts every New Yorker.
The question of who is to blame when things go wrong is often complicated and in the Deutsche Bank case the Manhattan D.A. is sorting through a tangled web of officials, developers, contractors and subcontractors now. Perhaps, in the future, city agencies will focus resources on prevention so we’ll have less grieving and investigating to do. How many deathtrap fires and crane collapses does it take before real change occurs?
I’m confident the Graffagninos’ work will pay off. Thanks to their tireless efforts, the F.D.N.Y. has a new fire prevention code for the first time in nearly a century, it has augmented its building inspection program, and the city is considering the use of high-tech radio frequency identification tags, which would pinpoint firefighters’ locations in an accident. But, as Mr. Graffagnino noted, “there are still loopholes in the law that agencies can take advantage of and those loopholes need to be closed.”
I can’t help but imagine what I would do if I was in the Graffagninos’ or Beddias’ shoes. I hope I’d be as courageous, but I’m not sure I’d be able to channel such loss into action. I’m eternally grateful to these families for their fortitude and for working to spare others their pain.
People call members of the F.D.N.Y. New York’s Bravest. Judging by the Graffagninos, bravery runs in the family. With so much work yet to be done we can’t leave these crusaders out there pushing the boulder up the hill alone. It’s the responsibility of all New Yorkers to push for building safety reform. Please, let’s not wait until the next disaster.
Victoria Grantham is a freelance writer who lives in Tribeca.