Volume 22, Number 01 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | May 15 - 21, 2009

Council introduces safety bills to prevent Deutsche-type problems

By Julie Shapiro

The City Council introduced 12 bills Monday to make construction sites safer based on lessons learned after the fatal 2007 Deutsche Bank fire.

“It’s our hope that the measures…will prevent other accidents like the one that happened at Deutsche Bank from ever happening again,” Council Speaker Christine Quinn said as she announced the legislative package, which is co-sponsored by 11 councilmembers including Alan Gerson in Lower Manhattan.

The lessons from the August 2007 blaze that killed two firefighters are many, because the mistakes were many as well. In an indictment of three construction supervisors and a contractor late last year, District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said the failures of the government agencies who were supposed to oversee the building had all contributed to the death of the two firefighters, who were trapped inside and ran out of air.

Morgenthau did not indict the city or any government officials, but the city acknowledged wrongdoing and is doing its own investigation. It should have a report before the end of May, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said Monday.

One of the things that made the contaminated former Deutsche Bank building so dangerous at the time of the fire was that workers were cleaning and demolishing the building at the same time. The asbestos abatement work included flammable materials and mazelike interior partitions that prevented firefighters from getting out of the building.

The new legislation would prohibit simultaneous decontamination and demolition work without the approval of several city agencies. Asked Monday why the city doesn’t just ban the simultaneous work outright, Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler said that for large, spread-out buildings like the original Yankee Stadium, the two separate jobs could happen at once if there was a sufficient buffer between them.

Another problem leading up to the Deutsche Bank fire was the lack of communication between the Fire Dept., Buildings Dept. and Dept. of Environmental Protection. The new legislation requires information sharing among city agencies, particularly about violations and inspections.

The legislation also focuses on standpipes, used to transport water through high-rise buildings, because the absence of a working standpipe in the Deutsche Bank building at the time of the fire contributed to the deaths. Now, standpipes would have to have pressurized alarms to detect breaches and be tested frequently, particularly as buildings are demolished.

The new bills are part of a package of 33 reforms Skyler recommended last summer. City agencies have already implemented those that did not require legislation, like exterior cutoff switches for negative air pressure machines. Many of the reforms were first implemented at the Deutsche Bank building, including the cutoff switch and standpipe testing.

Joseph Graffagnino Sr., whose son was killed in the fire, said Monday that the legislation is a good step, but he is concerned about a lingering loophole that allows state, federal and international buildings to be exempt from city codes. Skyler said he is in the process of negotiating a memorandum of understanding with the federal government to bring some of those buildings under the city’s jurisdiction.

“If our first responders have to go into those buildings to save lives, to save property,” Skyler said, “then those buildings should be up to the same codes as every other building in New York City.”








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