`Deutsche' Buck Stops at Top

Chief Leader - December 30, 2008

The conclusion of the Manhattan District Attorney's report on the Deutsche Bank building blaze that killed two Firefighters on Aug. 18, 2007 stated that "everyone failed at the Deutsche Bank building."

Only three persons were found criminally culpable for those failures: the site safety manager for Bovis Lend Lease, which was overseeing the demolition of the building due to its contamination from the neighboring World Trade Center attacks, and the foreman and the director of abatement for the John Galt Corp., which was handling the actual work.

They were charged because the foreman, Salvatore DePaola, and the director of abatement, Mitchell Alvo, approved the dismantling of part of the basement standpipe nearly a year before the tragedy. Bovis's site safety manager, Jeffrey Melofchik, allegedly witnessed that work and did nothing to remedy the hazard created. As a result, those battling the fire were unable to get water on it quickly while counting on a connection that had been cut.

No criminal charges were brought against Fire Department or Buildings Department officials for the failure of those agencies to perform required inspections that should have led to the discovery of the inoperable standpipe. But the report delivers lacerating criticism of them, the FDNY in particular.

"The complete failure of the FDNY to conduct a thorough inspection at the Deutsche Bank building before the fire contributed to the firefighters rushing into the burning building with no idea of the obstacles they would face," it stated.

One reason, the report continued, was that "firefighters do not view inspections as a priority." This claim has long been disputed by the fire unions and top department officials, but the report noted the lack of time devoted to this chore, stating, "At the time of the fire, by contract, firefighters were limited to conducting two three-hour inspection sessions per week for all buildings in New York City."

The DA's report stated that the lack of inspections "implicates high-ranking FDNY officials [who] clearly recognized that buildings undergoing construction, demolition and abatement were extremely dangerous for firefighting operations."

An alarm bell never went off even when, three months before the fatal fire, a 15-foot pipe fell from the Deutsche Bank tower through the roof of the adjoining firehouse. Fire Commissioner Nick Scoppetta and top uniformed officials came to inspect the damage, but despite the mishap, the report noted, "No one ever inquired at that time as to whether regular inspections were being conducted at the Deutsche Bank building or whether a special fire operations plan for this project was in place."

The lack of conscientiousness, reaching all the way to the top of the FDNY, "contributed to the conditions that led to the deaths of Firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino and the injuries to approximately 105 other New York City firefighters," the report concludes.

Other agencies failed them, including the Department of Buildings and Department of Environmental Protection, the state Department of Labor and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Mayor Bloomberg last week defended Mr. Scoppetta, saying that when something goes wrong, "you can't just take it all the way up to the top level and always fire the top guy."

In this instance, however, the "top guy" had direct knowledge of a problem at a building that later became a death trap for two of his employees, and he didn't ask the questions that might have made a difference. This is one instance where it is fair to question why the person at the top shouldn't be held accountable.