2007 Year In Review: FDNY Loses Two At WTC Site Fire

NY 1 - December 17, 2007

New York City firefighters will never forget the hundreds of members that lost their lives on September 11th, and this past year a fatal fire near the site brought back some bitter memories. In the following report, NY1's Amanda Farinacci takes a look back at the lessons learned in that tragic blaze.

If there is a single event that defines the New York City Fire Department in 2007, it is a fire at the former Deutsche Bank building. Evoking the memory of 9/11, hundreds of firefighters responded Downtown to the seven alarm blaze -but two didn't make it home.

Firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino were assigned to Manhattan's Engine 24 Ladder 5 -a house that lost 11 members on 9/11.

"Today's events really are another cruel blow to our city and to our Fire Department, and specifically to the house that Engine 24, Ladder 5 and Battalion 2 are in," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the time.

Just a day after the fatal fire, questions were raised about what FDNY officials knew about the building before the fire. Preliminary reports revealed sealed staircases inside the building and mandatory 15-day inspections that were not completed.

Simultaneous investigations were launched by the Manhattan district attorney's office, the attorney general's office and the FDNY, pitting the fire unions against the department after three fire officers are re-assigned and blamed for failure to complete inspections. The unions insist the order to stop inspections in the toxic building come from the top.

"It is clear again that the New York City Fire Department cannot conduct an investigation into the Deutsche Bank tragedy,” said UFA President Steve Cassidy.

Two months after the fire, the Department overhauled its building inspection program. The Buildings Department must now notify the FDNY anytime it issues a new building or demolition permit. There is also now a new computer program to keep track of all buildings more than 75-feet high that are going up or coming down. They have to be inspected every 15 days. The program reminds units when their next inspection is due.

The new policy means firefighters now spend nine hours every week doing building inspections, up from the six hours they used to do on a weekly basis.

Sometimes a crisis really presents an opportunity,” said Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta. "We took a comprehensive look at our inspection programs, and we decided we could strengthen the inspection programs.”

The unions protested the additional inspections, saying response times will increase. Commissioner Scoppetta testified at a City Council hearing that after a month with the new policy, response times are down.

Five firefighters, as well as the families of both Graffagnino and Beddia, have filed notices of claim to sue the city over the fire.

Meanwhile, the year began with the Fire Department's first written exam in four years, which came after the FDNY invested almost $1.5 million to attract a diverse group of applicants. Nearly 22,000 people showed up for the January 20th exam. More than 4,000 Hispanics, about 3,700 African Americans, roughly 450 Asians and over 800 women turned out to take the test.

"I think we're going to see a much more diverse department that includes minorities and a lot more women coming in the job, and it's terrific,” said Scoppetta.

What isn't so terrific, test-takers said, were some of the questions given on the three hour exam. A group of about 50 applicants wanted the test thrown out because they believe some questions are unrelated to firefighting. The exam stood -and so did a federal lawsuit brought on by the Justice Department, charging the FDNY with discriminatory hiring practices.

This, despite indications that the department's efforts to attract minorities are working. The next batch of firefighters will be drawn from a pool of the top 4,000 applicants, with 18 percent Hispanic, 12 percent black and three percent Asian, compared to only nine percent Hispanic, four percent black and one percent Asian in 2002.

"When people read that the Fire Department is more diverse and it is open to more people, more people are going to take the test,” said the mayor.

Those who've already made it to the training academy at Randall's Island will now face an additional ten weeks of training, bringing the total to 23 weeks. The increase is aimed at preparing new firefighters for the challenges of the 21st century.

"The world's changing,” said FDNY Chief Jimmy Brennan. "It's not just putting out fires anymore. Since 9/11, we take on a different face and a different job, so we have to increase their training and give them a different knowledge of what's going on.”

Firefighters are also trained to identify behavior that may be linked to terrorist activity. In the fall, the results of a comprehensive six-year health study showed that firefighters continue to suffer from the after-effects of 9/11, both physically and mentally. The report said that the sooner firefighters responded to the World Trade Center site, the greater illnesses they will face in the years following.

"These statistics are heart breaking and truly underscore the sacrifice and bravery that the FDNY exhibited in the days and months following the attacks,” said the mayor.

The FDNY says about 3,000 members take advantage of counseling services, and the department continues to track the health of more than 14,000 firefighters since 9/11.