Downtown Express - December 27, 2008by Julie Shapiro and Josh Rogers
The City of New York and construction manager Bovis Lend Lease are making many changes to avoid facing charges in the Aug. 18, 2007 fire at the Deutsche Bank building that killed two firefighters.
Bovis will pay millions of dollars to improve safety at 130 Liberty St. and its other city construction projects, while the F.D.N.Y. will create a new unit to inspect buildings that pose extra hazards, like the Deutsche Bank building. The contaminated Deutsche Bank building was being cleaned and demolished when the fire broke out.
District Attorney Robert Morgenthau negotiated the agreements instead of indicting Bovis or the city. The D.A. did indict subcontractor John Galt Corp., along with two Galt supervisors and Bovis' site safety manager.
Both the city and Bovis acknowledged responsibility for the missteps leading up to the fire and promised not to challenge the D.A.'s description of the events.
The agreements will ensure "firefighters are never again, never again…exposed to the dangers they faced in the fire," Morgenthau said Monday.
The F.D.N.Y. will form a 25-member civilian inspection team that will only inspect buildings under construction, demolition and abatement, focusing particularly on standpipes. A broken standpipe at the Deutsche Bank building left firefighters without water to subdue the blaze. The F.D.N.Y. will also add more than a dozen staff members to coordinate and audit the inspections and will designate an assistant chief of fire prevention and inspections.
All fire companies will be required to do drills every three months at any construction, demolition or abatement projects in their area.
The agreement between the city and D.A. is only binding for four years, after which time the F.D.N.Y. is free to discontinue the programs.
Asked how the D.A. would respond if the city fails to comply with the agreement, Daniel Castleman, chief assistant D.A., implied that the D.A. had no real enforcement power.
"We'll be very annoyed" if the city does not follow through, Castleman said.
Under the D.A.'s four-year agreement with Bovis, the company will hire a senior fire safety manager and a new regional safety director, who will report directly to the C.E.O. and C.O.O. of the company. Those new hires will implement a fire prevention program at all of Bovis' city construction sites. Since a worker's cigarette started the Deutsche Bank fire and the absence of a working standpipe worsened the blaze, Bovis' program will focus on standpipes and smoking.
To oversee the new safety initiatives, Bovis will hire an independent safety and integrity monitor, whom the D.A. will approve. The monitor will make semi-annual reports to the D.A.
Bovis also agreed to fire four people connected to the safety failures preceding the fire: Jeffrey Melofchik, who was just indicted, and Kenneth Gould, Felix Germano and Jerry Dorost, who do not face charges.
Finally, Bovis made two financial commitments: $2 million to establish a fire safety academy and $5 million each for the families of firefighters Joseph Graffagnino and Robert Beddia.
Joseph Graffagnino Sr., the firefighter's father, called the $5 million "blood money" and said he would not accept it.
"I wouldn't take it no matter what they offered, no matter how many zeros they put in," Graffagnino said. "Thirty pieces of silver are 30 pieces of silver."
Graffagnino also worried that accepting the money could harm the civil case he has pending against Bovis, Galt and many government agencies, though the agreement with the D.A. prohibits Bovis from mentioning the payment during a future case.
Civil liberties attorney Norman Siegel, who is not representing Graffagnino, said news of accepting the money would make it harder to get an untainted civil jury and Bovis might find a way to let it "seep into" the trial.
The Beddia family will accept the money, said Michael Barasch, the family's lawyer.
If Bovis reneges on any piece of the agreement, the D.A. can bring manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment charges against the company. The D.A. seems particularly concerned about Bovis making public statements contradicting the results of the D.A.'s investigation. Bovis will have 72 hours to repudiate any such statements before being charged.
Catherine McVay Hughes, chairperson of Community Board 1's W.T.C. Redevelopment Committee, praised the safety improvements Bovis and the city will make, along with Bovis' hiring earlier this year of a more experienced subcontractor to finish the job, LVI Environmental Services. The community board was outspoken about safety concerns in the years before the fire and had requested many changes that have since been implemented by the city Buildings Dept. and the F.D.N.Y.
"But it's unfortunate that it should take 130 Liberty for that to happen," Hughes said.
With reporting by Josh Rogers