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Possible Sabotage in Deutsche Bank Building Blaze?

New York Daily News | August 23, 2007
ADAM LISBERG, JONATHAN LEMIRE and CORKY SIEMASZKO

The FDNY was supposed to inspect the condemned former Deutsche Bank building - where two firefighters died in a horrific blaze - every 15 days, the Daily News learned yesterday.

The spot checks should have included inspecting the crucial standpipe system, which was broken when the inferno erupted Saturday and failed to deliver water to the upper floors.

The discovery came as a bitter blame game erupted with city firefighters ripping FDNY brass, another firefighters group blasting the demolition contractor, and Mayor Bloomberg struggling to reassure everyone the incident would be thoroughly investigated.

It also came as the Manhattan district attorney and the state attorney general announced separate probes into the fire that claimed the lives of Firefighters Robert Beddia and Joe Graffagnino.

Among other issues, investigators were expected to look into why a piece of the standpipe was found lying on the basement floor and whether it was an act of sabotage - or gross negligence.

"Nobody at this point knows whether that was a contributing factor to the two tragic deaths or not," Bloomberg said. "That's what an investigation is for."

The city's administrative code clearly spells out what the FDNY's responsibilities are when it comes to buildings that are being demolished.

"Deputy chiefs shall cause continued inspections of buildings in the course of construction and demolition at least every fifteen (15) days, but more often where conditions dictate," it states.

Steve Cassidy, the head of the city's fire union, said the Fire Department had told the local firehouse over a year ago to stop inspecting the standpipe system because of health concerns in the toxic building.

"They were told that they should no longer do that because the air quality in that building was not safe," he said.

Cassidy also called on state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to investigate "not only the FDNY's actions," but also the contractors and the government agencies that were supposed to supervise the demolition.

"We're not saying this fire should not have been fought, but we're saying that firefighters shouldn't take unnecessary risks in empty buildings, especially ones that are about to be torn down," Cassidy said.

A high-ranking FDNY source disputed Cassidy's claim that the inspections were called off.

"We did not inspect the site every 15 days," he said, adding that the decision was made in part because specialized equipment was needed to enter certain areas of the building.

But he also said, "We have no evidence that the local units were told not to conduct inspections."

The FDNY has not officially released any inspection records for the building, but the source told The News that it was checked in 2005 - with a complete evaluation of the standpipe system - and again sometime in 2006.

Uniformed Fire Officers President John McDonnell said firefighters arriving at the burning building were not given critical information by Bovis Lend Lease, the contracting agent in charge of the demolition, or its subcontractor, John Galt Corp.

For example, McDonnell said, they did not know the stairway doors were sealed on every other floor - and were stunned to discover open shafts in the floors that allowed the fire to race up and down the building.

The contractors have not spoken publicly about the fire.

"We talked to Bovis," said Avi Schick, chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which owns the building.

"They haven't answered all of the questions yet. We will pursue the truth until we get it."

Investigators suspect a discarded cigarette or improperly secured equipment sparked the fire. They have questioned many of the workers, most of them Polish or Ecuadoran, who were toiling in the building when the fire broke out, but have made no arrests.

There are precedents for bringing criminally negligent homicide charges against people whose actions caused the deaths of firefighters.

After Lt. Curtis Meyran and Firefighter John Bellew died while battling a Bronx blaze in January 2005, the building manager and two tenants were charged for allegedly carving the structure into a maze of illegal apartments.

The 41-story Deutsche Bank building overlooking Ground Zero was badly damaged in the Sept. 11 attacks. The LMDC has been criticized for the slow pace of demolition. The structure had been whittled down to 26 stories when the fire broke out.

Esther Regelson, 48, who lives on Washington St. near the building, said at a Community Board 1 meeting last night that officials have learned nothing.

"It was 9/11 revisited," she said of the fire. "I stood there, watching the building burning, wondering if it's going to collapse."

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