Volume 22, Number 06 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | June 26 - July 2, 2009
Downtown Express file photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio
The damaged former Deutsche Bank building.
Duetsche investigation finds many more to blame
By Julie Shapiro
The Fire Dept. disciplined seven officers Wednesday for their failures before the fatal 2007 fire at the former Deutsche Bank building.
The F.D.N.Y. permanently removed two officers from their commands and reprimanded five others after the city Dept. of Investigation issued a report last week chronicling those officers’ mistakes.
“This is a case of missed opportunities,” the D.O.I. said in the report. “Everyone had tunnel vision.”
The report describes the disregard firefighters and officers had for inspections, and the report also reveals new information about missteps at the city Buildings Dept., where an inspector’s plea for emergency testing went unanswered.
Firefighters were supposed to inspect the Deutsche Bank building every 15 days as it was being demolished, but they never did. Inspections could have revealed the dangerous conditions in the building that led to the deaths of two firefighters Aug. 18, 2007 during the blaze.
“Inspections are a critically important function of the Department and the failure of company officers to perform them — and the failure by supervisors to ensure they are being completed — is a serious breach of their responsibilities,” Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said in a statement, announcing the censure of seven of his officers.
Scoppetta reassigned three officers shortly after the fire, and one of them has since retired. On Wednesday, the other two officers — Deputy Chief Richard Fuerch and Capt. Peter Bosco — were permanently relieved of their commands. Feurch, a division commander, told investigators he was aware of the rule that required inspections but he never enforced it. Bosco, the commanding officer of Engine 10, next to the Deutsche Bank building, ignored several warnings about the building.
Scoppetta also disciplined three other deputy chiefs and two battalion chiefs.
At the time of the fire, workers were simultaneously cleaning and demolishing the Deutsche Bank building, which was contaminated on 9/11. When firefighters entered the skyscraper, they met with a maze of containment barriers that blocked off stairways, and they found no water to fight the blaze, because of a 42-foot gap in the standpipe, which supplies the building with water.
These hazards contributed to the deaths of the firefighters — Joseph Graffagnino Jr., 33, and Robert Beddia, 53 — but neither D.O.B. nor F.D.N.Y. picked up on the problems in advance.
“That’s ridiculous,” Joseph Graffagnino Sr. said of the city’s failures. “Part of you getting that job in the first place, you have to be trained.”
Had the Buildings and Fire inspectors examined the building as they were supposed to, they would have noticed “the contractors’ cavalier disregard for public safety,” D.O.I. Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn said in a statement. “As long as developers tolerate and employ irresponsible contractors, we must rely on our inspectors to keep us from harm.”
The Manhattan district attorney already issued indictments late last year to subcontractor John Galt Corp., along with two construction supervisors with Galt and one with contractor Bovis Lend Lease, but the D.A. decided not to charge the city. The D.A. is separately investigating the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which owns the building, for approving the hiring of Galt, a company with no experience and reputed mob ties.
Graffagnino Sr. said the new D.O.I. report does not get to the heart of these issues, because it focuses on the city and does not even mention the L.M.D.C. Graffagnino has filed a civil lawsuit against all the involved parties, including the city, L.M.D.C., Galt and Bovis.
While there is plenty of blame to go around, the new D.O.I. report highlights the lack of city communication and oversight, using words like “remarkably” and “astoundingly” to describe the city’s many mistakes. The D.A. mentioned some of those failures in his indictments, but this is the first time the city’s role has been so thoroughly scrutinized. The D.O.I. reviewed thousands of pages of documents and interviewed nearly 80 people.
In addition to the F.D.N.Y. officers who were disciplined this week, at least one D.O.B. employee is facing disciplinary charges as a result of the inquiry. He has since retired.
While the D.O.I. report details many missed opportunities, one that had never been reported and arguably one of the most significant came on June 25, 2007, when D.O.B. inspector Aaron Williamson sounded an alarm on unsafe conditions at the building.
Williamson was part of the Buildings Dept.’s Lower Manhattan Taskforce, a group of inspectors that staffed the Deutsche Bank building full-time in 2007 under the supervision of Robert Iulo.
On June 25, 2007, just under two months before the fire, Williamson noticed a gap in the standpipe on the 28th floor of the building. A piece of wood was propped between the disconnected sections of pipe.
Williamson reported the standpipe breach, a safety hazard, to Iulo. Iulo should have immediately issued a stop-work order to Bovis, but instead he instructed Williamson to give Bovis two hours to fix the standpipe, according to the report. The D.O.I. noted that it was common practice for the Buildings inspectors to give Bovis time to correct violations before issuing them, which goes against the city’s rules in hazardous situations.
On June 25, Bovis fixed the pipe, but Williamson remained concerned and suggested to Iulo twice that Bovis do a full test of the entire standpipe system. Unbeknownst to Williamson and Iulo, that test would likely have revealed the 42-foot gap in the standpipe in the basement, which contributed to the fire’s deadliness two months later. The standpipe test never happened, Williamson told investigators.
Williamson also said Iulo instructed him not to include the standpipe incident in his daily report. Williamson complied, but he wrote up the incident in a separate report that he kept to himself.
Iulo told investigators he had no memory of the June 25 incident.
Investigators also unveiled other new charges against Iulo, faulting him for not setting clear inspection guidelines for the Deutsche Bank building and for not assigning qualified inspectors to the job. None of the inspectors had any experience on demolition jobs, and at least one inspector could not recognize a standpipe and did not know how it worked, the report said.
The D.O.B. served Iulo with disciplinary charges on Feb. 17, 2009 and he retired three days later. The charges are pending.
The D.O.I. report also censured the Fire Dept., from the lowest level on up. In particular, the D.O.I. revealed detailed criticisms of Capt. Bosco, the Engine 10 officer who was permanently relieved of his command on Wednesday.
Before Bosco took over Engine 10 at the end of 2006, his predecessors were inspecting the Deutsche Bank building on average once every other month, and they left a file behind recommending weekly surveillance of the building. Bosco told investigators he never looked at that file.
Bosco thought firefighters were never supposed to go into the Deutsche Bank building, because it was contaminated, and he took no steps to learn about the building, the report said. That remained true even after Bosco received a memo shortly before the fire from Battalion Chief Robert Norcross, which reminded Bosco to take extra precautions with the Deutsche Bank building. The memo concluded with a bolded statement: “THE ONLY SAFE ASSUMPTION IS TO ASSUME THE WORST.”
Norcross was reprimanded Wednesday for poor supervision.
After receiving the memo, Bosco told investigators, “I read it and then, I mean, we were all aware the building was toxic and that’s it. I don’t know if I told the lieutenants. I must have left it on the desk.” The D.O.I. report continues, “Less than two weeks before the fire, Capt. Bosco missed an opportunity to discuss the site, and perhaps inspections, with the men he supervised.”
The problems continued up the chain of command. As the D.A. previously reported, no one at F.D.N.Y. enforced what was known as the 15-day rule, which required the Fire Dept. to inspect buildings under construction or demolition every 15 days. Many officers told city investigators they had never heard of the 15-day rule, even though it is in the “Fire Prevention Manual” that firefighters study for promotion exams, the report said.
Even after a pipe fell off the Deutsche Bank building in May 2007 and crashed through the roof of the Engine 10/Ladder 10 firehouse, injuring two firefighters slightly, no one from F.D.N.Y. took a closer look at the Deutsche Bank building. Manhattan Borough Commander Michael Weinlein visited the firehouse twice after the accident, but “he focused only on how the accident happened, how to avoid a similar occurrence in the future, and what needed to be done to fix and protect the firehouse,” the report states. “Unfortunately, he did not use this opportunity to ask whether the building was being inspected.”
Commissioner Scoppetta visited the 10/10 firehouse after the accident as well, and he also did not raise concerns about the Deutsche Bank building, but the D.O.I. report does not mention that. Instead, the report focuses on Scoppetta’s actions after the fire.
The city has made many changes since the fire to improve oversight and cooperation, but the D.O.I. report recommends that the agencies go further. The Fire Dept. should allot even more time for inspections, and if firefighters are called away from inspections for an emergency, they should make up the time later, the report states. Also, the D.O.I. recommended that the Buildings Dept. improve its training of supervisors and create a uniform site-safety log that contractors fill out daily and Buildings inspectors examine.
Both Scoppetta and D.O.B. Commissioner Robert LiMandri said last week in statements that they would review the report’s advice.