Firefighters Still Seeking Justice 10 Years after Deutsche Bank Fire

WABC - August 16, 2017

by Jim Hoffer

Tuesday, August 15, 2017 10:45PM MANHATTAN, New York (WABC) -- This week marks 10 years since the devastating fire in Lower Manhattan that killed two of New York's Bravest.

A decade ago, a fire sparked by a worker's cigarette turned the condemned former Deutsche Bank building into an inferno of toxic smoke and flames that killed two firefighters and injured more than 100.

"It's pitch black, choking acrid smoke, it was horrible," former FDNY Firefighter Steve Olsen said.

Olsen was on the 15th floor wondering why it was taking so long for ground crews to get water up to the fire, but what he and the other firefighters didn't know was that the standpipe --which is the main source for water -- had been cut during the demolition work overseen by contractor Bovis Lend Lease. With no water, the fire raged out of control.

Many were trapped, and firefighters Joe Graffagnino and Robert Beddia could not escape. Olsen did.

"Somebody should've gone to jail for not doing their job," Olsen said. "Because that standpipe missing, that's all it was between life and death."

In a post-fire investigation, Manhattan's district attorney found enough evidence of lax safety to criminally prosecute Bovis Lend Lease for manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. Instead, the DA gave Bovis protection from prosecution. In exchange, the contractor had to "willingly acknowledge responsibility for its actions."

"Oh yes, it changed my life totally," Olsen said. "I can't do any of the things I used to."

All these years later, Olsen and other injured firefighters are still trying to get Bovis to own up to its responsibility in civil court. Olsen says while Bovis admitted responsibility to escape criminal prosecution, in civil court, all they do is deny, deny, deny.

"I want them held accountable for what they did to me," he said. "They took my career away." Olsen's attorney, Sara Director, says the hypocrisy is glaring.

"Unfortunately, the admissions and statements they made cannot be admissible in civil court pursuant to the court order," she said. "So what was good to them to get out of a criminal prosecution, they're totally disavowing in a civil case. It's shameless. It's disingenuous."

Bovis, now known as Lend Lease with headquarters on Park Avenue, would only say that, "The matter of Mr. Olsen remains an active litigation handled by our insurance carrier. We are not able to comment."

Joseph Graffagnino lost his son in the Deutsche Bank Fire.

"I'm still trying to get justice," he said.

He says the DA's non-prosecution settlement allowed Bovis off the hook criminally, and then provided protection in civil court for the company.

"My anger stems from the lack of admitting guilt," he said. "The people who are responsible, the people who made the decision to do what they did, were never held accountable."

Olsen and several other firefighters are now waiting to see if an appeals court will uphold a lower court's decision to allow their case against Bovis to go forward. Their court struggle continues 10 years after the fire.