Volume 21, Number 16 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Aug. 29 - Sept. 4, 2008
Picture of a detached part of the Deutsche Building’s broken standpipe, top. Firefighters Beddia and Graffagnino both passed out on the 14th floor, not too far from this room bottom.
Report details Deutsche firefighters’ last fatal hour
By Julie Shapiro
Across the street from the smoking Deutsche Bank building, an F.D.N.Y. commander orchestrated the firefighting operations inside. He communicated by radio, his voice coming in clearly as he asked repeatedly for a roll call.
“Listen, these are the companies we have to account for and I want you to start doing now,” he said. “Let’s find out who’s missing, alright?”
The commander transmitted that message at 4:21 p.m. on Aug. 18, 2007, 45 minutes after construction workers decontaminating and demolishing the former Deutsche Bank building called 911 to report the fire. Less than an hour later, rescuers pulled unconscious firefighters Joseph Graffagnino and Robert Beddia from the flaming building.
The Fire Department released the radio transmissions from the fire last week as part of an investigative report into Graffagnino and Beddia’s deaths of smoke inhalation. The report lists 32 recommendations to keep firefighters safe, some of which have already been implemented. The F.D.N.Y. gave the report to the district attorney, who is conducting his own investigation, with indictments expected early this fall.
While the Fire Department does not seek to place blame, fault comes through clearly in the report. Construction workers on the site waited 13 minutes to call 911 after one of them ignited the blaze with a discarded cigarette. Then the construction workers told firefighters that the standpipe was working (it wasn’t) and that the plywood barriers over the staircases were easy to breach (they weren’t). The firefighters also broke rules intended for their safety so they could stay in the building longer, in what the report refers to as the F.D.N.Y.’s “can-do attitude.”
The report also reveals that the former Deutsche Bank building was at serious risk for collapse, as the fire bowed several sections of structural steel. The fireproofing around that steel had been removed.
The early radio transmissions between firefighters focused on tactics: how to gain entrance to the building, how to penetrate the plywood-blocked staircases and how to get water to the fire. But by the time the water arrived 67 minutes after the 911 call, the focus had already shifted to accounting for the safety of the firefighters.
“Listen, I want a roll call,” the commander repeated. “Do we have a roll call finished up there? I don’t give a shit about the building. I give a shit about the guys. Do we have a roll call? Do we know who’s missing?”
The commander’s voice was steady and intense, with measured spaces between the words, but the static-blurred radio transmissions from the men inside the building showed that conditions were rapidly deteriorating. The firefighters shouted raspily that they were low on air, unable to find their way out of the maze of plywood and plastic sheeting. The fire was moving down the building, quickly surrounding the firefighters in thick black smoke. The broken standpipe left them with no water to fight the fire.
“It’s starting to get bad up here at 15,” one firefighter said at 4:20 p.m. “We’re gonna force our way. We gotta breach through some of this, ah, plywood to get the hell outta here. It’s getting bad. We’re losing visibility.”
Mayday messages came in, one after the other, from firefighters separated from their units and trapped in the building and from units that escaped only to realize that one of their members was missing. Firefighters interrupted each other’s transmissions to signal their distress or share vital information about the movement of the fire — but with so many people trying to talk at once, many messages went unheard.
One of the maydays came at 4:50 p.m. from an Engine 24 fireman, who had been working with Graffagnino and Beddia on the 14th floor. Graffagnino was out of air, and the firefigher was unable to share his air with Graffagnino or drag him to safety. The fireman’s mayday went unheeded, and it was another 11 minutes before rescuers found Graffagnino, who was unconscious. Nine minutes after that, at 5:10 p.m., the rescuers found Beddia, also unconscious.
Also see: The search for Beddia and Graffagnino