Volume 22, Number 16 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | August 28 - September 3, 2009


Safer demolitions

For many of us, the vivid memories of the 9/11 attack will always be there. As we approach the eight-year anniversary, there are also still physical reminders of the tragedy hovering over the World Trade Center. The two remaining buildings that were damaged on that day — the former Deutsche Bank building and the City University of New York’s Fiterman Hall — are literally the biggest reminders.

Demolition of Fiterman began about a month ago and deconstruction at the trouble-plagued Deutsche Bank building could finally be resuming next month. Since two firefighters were killed battling a blaze at the Deutsche Bank building more than two years ago, we’ve learned to be skeptical about any claims about bringing this dangerous hulk down. But we’re pleased that preparatory demolition work began this week.

More important, some of the long-overdue safety improvements for demolition and construction projects appear to be working effectively, but more needs to be done. There was, of course, no need to wait for the tragic deaths of Firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino, Jr. to begin taking safety more seriously — we and community leaders warned about safety problems before the deadly fire — but any time safety is increased, it potentially saves lives.

There were many preventable reasons for the firefighters’ deaths, but at the top of the list was the broken standpipe that was never inspected or repaired. Firefighters were sent into a “death trap” without a water source, according to Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who is still investigating the case.

At Fiterman Hall, work was stopped a few weeks ago when the standpipe failed a test. That’s how things are supposed to work. As a building is being dismantled, the standpipe must be cut repeatedly and, in turn, tested repeatedly.

More troubling are the cigarette butts recently found at Fiterman. Smoking was prohibited at the Deutsche Bank building because of the flammable materials, but workers typically smoked there and a cigarette started the blaze, according to investigators. Fiterman no longer has flammable materials needed for the abatement of toxic materials because demolition did not begin until the abatement in the building was finished — another post-Deutsche reform. Smoking may not be as hazardous there as it was a few months ago, but it is still dangerous and is prohibited for a reason. Last year, inspectors found cigarette butts at the Deutsche Bank building, and one of our photographers got a photo of a construction worker smoking while working on One World Trade Center, even though smoking is prohibited throughout the site.

If no-smoking rules are flouted at high-profile sites at and near the W.T.C. where inspectors are on site, it seems likely that there are more violations elsewhere around the city.

Building safety appears to be getting better, but clearly more vigilance and enforcement are needed. Construction work is dangerous enough. Lax enforcement only increases the risks.

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