Unforgivable Crimes Fueled Deutsche Fire Tragedy

NY Daily News - December 23, 2008

by MICHAEL DALY

The sound reverberated up from the basement of the Deutsche Bank building in the fall of 2006, and workers hurried down to determine the cause.

They saw right away that a 42-foot section of the large, heavy standpipe had fallen.

They also knew exactly why.

The hanging rods supporting the standpipe were difficult to decontaminate, requiring long hours scrubbing them with little wire brushes. Hours that meant money.

So the supervisors came up with another solution.

"They sawed off the hanging rods," the Manhattan DA's report says.

A standpipe carries the water in the event of a fire, and the result of this shortcut for the sake of a few dollars was the deaths of two firefighters nearly a year later.

Monday, the demolition firm and three supervisors were indicted for manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment.

The crimes are all the more unforgivable when you consider that the Deutsche Bank building is directly across the street from where 343 members of the FDNY perished demonstrating what is the very best in us.

At this decontamination and demolition job at the edge of Ground Zero, the safety of firefighters meant nothing compared with two overriding concerns.

"Delays and additional expense," the Manhattan DA's report notes.

No agency or public official is named in the indictments, but the only branch of government that lived up to its responsibilities was the city Department of Investigation, which issued strenuous warnings about the firm hired for the Deutsche Bank job.

Everyone else, from the Fire Department to the Buildings Department and ultimately City Hall combined to allow John Galt Co. to create a deathtrap for Firefighter Robert Beddia and Firefighter Joseph Graffagnino.

"Everybody who could have screwed up screwed up here," Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said.

The screwup started when the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. ignored the DOI's warnings that Galt differed only in name from the defunct Safeway, which had a history of egregious safety violations and mob ties.

Galt proved how little difference a new name makes, how right the DOI was to be concerned. Not long afterward, there came the reverberating sound that anybody could have predicted.

Those who gathered around the fallen standpipe included the three supervisors who would later be named in the indictment, Mitchel Alvo, Salvatore DePaola and Jeffrey Melofchik. The supervisors noted that a second section of pipe had torn loose.

A respectable firm would never have gotten into this situation, but if it had, it would have repaired the fallen and sagging sections of what is known in the trade as an "untouchable pipe."

After all, the law clearly requires that the standpipe be operational at all times.

But Galt again proved how right the DOI had been.

"Workers cut the two sections of pipe into smaller pieces which were bagged and discarded," the DA's report notes.

A Buildings Department inspector was on the site every day, but must never have taken even a cursory look at the basement. Nor apparently did the Fire Department.

"You didn't need a magnifying glass to see that 42-foot gap," Morgenthau noted yesterday.

The DOI repeated its warnings to City Hall, which actually pushed for Galt and the overseeing contractor Bovis to stay when they threatened to quit in January of 2007. Galt and Bovis got more money, pledging to work faster.

'I believe we have solved our problem," then-Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff said.

The dismantled standpipe went undiscovered for seven more months as the floors above became the hellish maze of partitions and blocked exits where Beddia and Graffagnino perished.

The sound of that falling standpipe should reverberate through the conscience of the many who share blame for their deaths.

But it won't.

At least the district attorney has muscled the city into accepting responsibility for "the inspectional and enforcement failures" and making written commitments to prevent future failures.

"Never again," Morgenthau said.