Downtown Express file photo by J.B. Nicholas
The former Deutsche Bank building
Council grills Deutsche contractors & officials
By Julie Shapiro
The Department of Buildings inspectors who failed to uncover unsafe conditions in the Deutsche Bank building prior to the fatal 2007 fire are still on the job.
Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau called the Buildings inspectors “inexperienced” in his recent report on the deaths of two firefighters in the contaminated tower. The Buildings inspectors never donned the protective gear they would have needed to find the many safety violations in the building, including a 42-foot gap in the standpipe, which left firefighters without water during the fire.
Despite these shortfalls, the D.O.B. said Friday that the current inspectors are “substantially the same” as those who were supposed to be inspecting the tower at the time of the fire. They have since received 30 hours of federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration training and 40 hours of site safety training, said Christopher Santulli, Manhattan borough commissioner for the D.O.B.
“The current training is project-specific and is much more significant than what we had prior to the fire,” Santulli said.
Santulli did not say Friday why the department kept the inspectors rather than replacing them.
The revelation about the Buildings inspectors came during a hearing City Councilmember Alan Gerson held last Friday on the past and future of the Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty St., which is currently being cleaned so it can be demolished.
Gerson had sharp words for many of the witnesses at the hearing, including David Emil, president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which owns the building across from the World Trade Center site. Gerson pressed Emil on the culture of unsafe behavior at the site before the fire and asked whether that had changed.
Emil would not directly answer the question, and Gerson got frustrated, saying, “We’re not going to solve the problem if we can’t agree there was a problem.”
Even when Gerson grilled Emil on the many missteps that preceded the fatal fire, including nine smaller fires that ought to have raised red flags, Emil said little.
For example, several weeks before the final fire, URS Corp., the L.M.D.C.’s representative on the site, told the L.M.D.C. that the contractor, Bovis Lend Lease, could not be trusted to keep the building safe, according to the D.A. At Friday’s hearing, Gerson asked Emil if URS was right about Bovis.
“I’m not sure we’re going to offer a comment on our opinion at that time,” Emil said after a lengthy silence. “I think we have learned from the past and made changes,” he said, referring to the more robust safety plans put in place after the fire.
After the hearing, Emil declined to say whether the L.M.D.C. had done everything it could have done to prevent the fire.
Gerson also tried to pin down precisely who was responsible for the project, and he got the same answer from everyone he asked: It’s a team with many players, including the L.M.D.C., URS, Bovis and regulatory agencies. Frank Voci, senior vice president with Bovis, described the frequent meetings between the stakeholders.
“It’s a very, very interwoven process with several participants,” Voci said.
“That’s what has folks worried,” Gerson replied. One of the community’s chief concerns about the project is if anyone is truly in charge.
Gerson asked the same question of the next panel of representatives from city agencies, and he got a similar response: frequent meetings, many stakeholders.
“It scares me if we’re coordinating this just by committee,” Gerson said. “Does it not make sense to have one official in charge?”
Earlier in the hearing, Emil said the team on the site today is “functioning well.”
That team still includes one group affiliated with John Galt Corp., the former project subcontractor charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the 2007 fire. Regional Scaffolding and Hoisting, which shares employees with Galt, is still working at the site. After the City Council hearing, L.M.D.C. spokesperson Mike Murphy said Regional installed the building’s scaffolding but the workers are not on the site on a regular basis.
The L.M.D.C. vets all the subcontractors Bovis hires, and the L.M.D.C. would not approve anyone with ties to Galt, Emil said.
The hearing’s many witnesses listed safety improvements to the building since the fire, including a standpipe alarm that detects any breaches. Cas Holloway, chief of staff to Deputy Mayor Edward Skyler, announced a $24 million contract with I.B.M. to create a database of buildings that will help the F.D.N.Y. prioritize their inspections. The city is also cross-training their inspectors, so workers from the Department of Environmental Protection, for example, will also have F.D.N.Y. and Buildings Department training.
During the hearing, Voci, with Bovis, revealed that the long-delayed project is once again behind schedule. Under the best-case scenario, the building will come down by the middle of October, not in August, the most recent target. But if the contractors find asbestos in the fireproofing on steel in two of the stairways, they will need another six to seven weeks to abate it, pushing the deadline the beginning of December. Bad weather could delay the project even further, Voci said. Voci used the word “hopeful” in describing the timeline.
The 26-story building is currently cleaned down through the eighth floor and will be entirely cleaned by early April. Workers are also removing the facade of the building, which is complete down to the 18th floor and should be finished by the end of April. Then, once the government regulators approve the demolition plan, the building will begin to come down.
With asbestos gone from the building, the biggest danger to the public during demolition will be silica from the breaking apart of the concrete floor plates. Workers will use fire hoses to keep the dust to a minimum as the building comes down, said Bob Harvey, acting executive director of the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center.
Frank Aiello, vice president of subcontractor LVI Environmental Services, called the decontamination of the building a “monumental task.”
“There’s no magic to this work,” Aiello said as he showed pictures of workers in white hazardous materials suits scrubbing steel beams.
Aiello said the culture of safety on the site was “as good as I’ve seen in my 22 years in the business.”
All workers on the site take a 10-hour OSHA safety course and a one-day site orientation. LVI has had only five injuries on the job since joining the project a year ago, and all were minor, like cuts or abrasions.
But Gerson was particularly concerned about the reports last summer of beer cans and cigarettes found on the site.
“We’re not quite sure how that occurred,” said Voci, from Bovis.
Since then, Bovis has installed 10 cameras in the building and brought a tobacco-sniffing dog onto the site to make sure workers aren’t bringing in cigarettes. The dog recently tracked down a cigarette in the pocket of a jacket that belonged to a security guard. The guard was fired, Voci said.
Gerson also questioned the L.M.D.C. and Bovis about an accident last month in which a 2-foot metal rod fell from the 15th floor of the building into an enclosed work area but did not hit anyone. Voci said Bovis used its emergency notification system to tell the community and government regulators about the accident within five minutes.
“You did not,” called out Catherine McVay Hughes, chairperson of Community Board 1’s W.T.C. Redevelopment Committee. Downtown Express previously reported that the L.M.D.C. did not mention the accident at a recent meeting with residents until one resident directly asked about it.
Emil acknowledged that Hughes was correct about the community not being notified, because the L.M.D.C. thought the public was never in danger. But since the community clearly wants to hear about accidents of any magnitude, Emil said the L.M.D.C. would change its policy.
“We will notify people…in a similar situation,” Emil said. “The more notice, the better, as far as I’m concerned.”
Additionally, the L.M.D.C. will post monthly progress reports on its Web site, beginning this month.
Emil also agreed to Gerson’s request that the L.M.D.C. announce any changes to the plans approved by the government regulators. These changes, called variances, are very common and are usually technical. The variances detail the means of implementing the plan, not an exception to it, Emil said.
At the beginning of the hearing, Jim Abadie, executive vice president of Bovis’ New York office, refused to answer Gerson’s questions about events leading up to the fire, saying the D.A. had forbidden it. Alicia Maxey-Greene, spokesperson for the D.A., said only, “Our office is looking into the matter.”