Morgenthau Investigation Makes Strides Toward Justice In Deutsche Bank Fire

NY Daily News - December 23, 2008

by NY Daily News Editorial

The manslaughter indictments filed in connection with the Deutsche Bank building fire bring some measure of satisfaction that justice is being done in the deaths of Firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino.

So, too, a package of smart reforms and compensation secured by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau as he concluded an investigation that verged on hauling the City of New York and a major contractor into court as criminal defendants.

But the charges leveled against three demolition supervisors and the actions promised by Mayor Bloomberg and the Bovis Lend Lease company fall short of full accountability for the sweeping malfeasance that enabled the two deaths.

The accused will pay with their freedom should they be convicted of dismantling the standpipe that was supposed to deliver water to the hulking, poisonous structure. But all those in city government who were derelict must reap the consequences of their failures.

Gross negligence abounded. A DA's report that accompanied the arrests was horrifying in its depiction of how city agencies allowed the building to become a deathtrap.

And nowhere were lapses worse than in the Fire Department, which ignored its own standards for 15-day standpipe inspections on demolition jobs and failed to develop plans for combatting blazes in the tower.

No one in the department made a cursory check - even after a pipe fell from the building onto a neighboring firehouse. That incident drew FDNY Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta to the roof of the firehouse.

And that, unbelievably, is as far as Scoppetta went.

Morgenthau's charges were the product of a 16-month grand jury investigation into the history of how the state and city botched the demolition and decontamination of a building that became a toxic zone with the collapse of the World Trade Center.

The DA properly pinned criminal responsibility on three men who worked for Bovis and its fly-by-night subcontractor, the John Galt Corp.

After committing to safety standards in a workplace prone to fire, employees of the two companies failed to report small blazes to the FDNY, sealed stairwells and, most egregiously, destroyed a 42foot section of the standpipe in an effort to cut corners.

All too predictably, a major fire roared out of control because firefighters couldn't get water to the upper floors. And there was no way for Beddia (top) and Graffagnino to escape because the stairwells were blocked.

The FDNY knew nothing of the broken standpipe because, across the city, it had simply stopped 15-day checks. The Buildings Department knew nothing of the broken standpipe because onsite inspectors didn't go into the basement.

And those inspectors, along with Department of Environmental Protection staff, did nothing about the sealed stairwells.

Presented with such conduct, Morgenthau was compelled to consider charging the city. Wisely, the law bars such an action, but he used his leverage to prod Bloomberg to establish a new inspection program.

Similarly, he refrained from indicting Bovis because the top penalty would have been a $10,000 fine. The company agreed to enact enhanced safety measures, accept monitoring by the DA and to pay $5 million to each firefighter's family - on top of any sums they recover in court.

Given the reach of the penal law, the settlement was in the public interest and in the interests of the families, if they desire to take advantage of it.

But there remains a question for Bloomberg to answer: Does he still have full confidence in Scoppetta?