WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Stucknation: The Sad Saga of 130 Liberty
A Place As Parable
Monday, November 15, 2010 - 12:00 AM
On September 11th, 2001, when the World Trade Center's South Tower fell, it tore a 15-story gash into the 41-story Deutsche Bank building, letting in the World Trade's whirlwind of toxic waste and human remains. Diesel tanks that held the fuel for the building's Emergency generator helped feed a fire that flared for days.
Now, almost ten years later, workers are finally dismantling the fifth and fourth floors at 130 Liberty, as the site is now known. Sunlight is finally replacing what was a highrise headstone that cast a shadow over Ground Zero. But the demolition is costing hundreds of millions of dollars and it is not scheduled to be complete until early next year.
The reasons behind the delays and the $400 million (and counting) price tag illustrate the stuck in stucknation
First there was the prolonged legal squabble between Deutsche Bank and the building's insurers that raged as the mold infestation at the site mushroomed.
Then, there was a fire at the site in 2007 that killed two fire fighters and injured more than a hundred others and further traumatized the nearby community residents who had survived 9-11. An exhaustive investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office concluded that both government and corporate malfesance helped set the stage for a fatal fire in August of 2007 at 130 Liberty.
Former District Attorney Robert Morgenthau faulted the prime contractor Bovis Lend Lease and city, state and federal agencies. He was particularly hard on the City's FDNY brass which failed to inspect the building and missed a dismantled stand pipe that's essential to bring water in the event of a fire.
Three contractors were criminally indicted and maintain their innocence. But according to the DA's report, there was a major conspiracy of silence with several fires popping up on the site that summer that no one reported to the proper authoriities.
At the heart of the site's mismanagement was an unqualified subcontractor with alleged links to a company tied to organized crime. The firm was picked to work on the project over the objections of the city's Department of Investigation.
But it was the local neighborhood activists with Community Board 1 who sounded the loudest and clearest alarm. They warned in 2005, two years before the deadly fire, that site conditions had so badly deteriorated at Deutsche Bank that the potential for just an accident was quite real. Arrogant bureaucrats dismissed them.
One of those community activists was Mary Perillo, whose 8th floor loft is directly across the street from Deutsche Bank. Like the thousands of lower Manhattan residents who were living in the neighborhood on 9-11, she's learned to be skeptical about just about everything. She is still angry about the Environmental Protection Agency’s “all clear” for air quality immediately after the 9-11 attack. "It was all about getting Wall Street back up and running," she says.
She's happy to see Deutsche Bank at just 10 percent of its past height. She can easily watch the progress of the 130 Liberty demolition from her kitchen window.
"The major thing I see when i look out the window still is that two firefighters died needlessly after the community said time and time again the safety measures weren't anywhere near the correct standards," she told me last week. “Now it looks like they are taking it down better than they had been.”
She wants something nearby to be named for Firefighters Robert Beddia and Joe Graffagnino who died in that August 2007 fire. She also wants the Senate to pass the 9-11 Victims Compensation bill passed that is named for NYPD officer James Zadroga who died in 2007 from 9-11 related health issues. (Since 9-11, 29 police officers have died of World Trade Center related health illnesses. 23 were killed the day of the attack.)
Perillo says the bill will cover community members like herself who have stayed through the delays and tragic setbacks.
"The community has come together around this quite about,” she said. “If we had blown out of here, and gone else where, and not comeback who would have won? The bad guys."
Those bad guys aren’t just terrorists. They’re also the incompetent or opportunistic interests — public and private — that failed at 130 Liberty.
It’s a tale not limited to just this address. After all, the current crisis in America is not really about an underperforming economy. It is actually about how corruption has corroded our national character.
But there's still hope thanks to the watchful eyes of Mary Perillo and her neighbors. They show us that even on the block where the American spirit has been tested again and again, the tradition of the citizen activist demanding accountability endures.