A History of Concern: Acquittals in Deutsche Bank Blaze Prompt Deeper Questions

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More than a year before the fire broke out in the condemned Deutsche Bank building that killed two firefighters, the tragic outcome of ill-fated project had been foreshadowed by officials who questioned the qualifications of the subcontractor hired to take down the structure.

The contaminated 40-story building in the shadow of the World Trade Center that once housed Deutsche Bank had been tainted on September 11, 2001, and an independent state authority — the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation — signed off on a course to simultaneously decontaminate the building and demolish it in 2005.

"The real question is why [subcontractor] John Galt was hired in the first place?" asked Lower Manhattan Community Board 1 chair Julie Menin. "Why would you hire a sub-contractor never taken down an environmentally contaminated building and had mob connections?"

An attorney for  the John Galt corporation denied any mob ties.

As a corporation, John Galt was convicted of a misdemeanor count in the Deutsche bank case this week — but all the construction managers were acquitted.

"I thought as a corporate entity they would have more responsibility and thus would've been guilty on more serious charges," Joseph Graffagino Sr., father of firefighter Joseph Graffagino, 33, who was killed in the fire, told WNYC this week.  

Graffagino has several civil suits pending against the city, the FDNY and Galt for the death of his son.

But Attorney David Wikstrom, who represents Galt, thinks he has grounds for a strong appeal because none of the other defendants were convicted: "A corporation can't be found guilty of a crime in a vacuum," said Wikstrom.

History of Concerns

Yet as early as 2006, the city's Department of Investigation raised detailed objections about the selection of Galt by the prime contractor Bovis and the LMDC.

In its final report on the Deutsche Bank fire, the DOI said Galt should have never gotten the contract because of its track record. Years earlier DOI had raised Galt's inexperience and its ties to Safeway Environmental Corporation — a company the department said in an April 11, 2006 letter had "a long history of integrity, competence and financial problems and allegations of criminal wrong doing."

Galt's lawyer said at the time the issue had been resolved to the satisfaction of the officials overseeing the deconstruction.

DOI's chief of staff Robert Roach wrote more than a year before the fatal fire that it was "shocking and disturbing" that John Galt "with links to Safeway and no significant background in toxic clean-up and deconstruction" had gotten the Deutsche Bank decontamination and demolition project, one of the most complicated such jobs ever undertaken.

Foreshadowing Events

Before the August 18, 2007, fire that killed firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino and injured more than 100 firefighters, Community Board 1 members told the LMDC at public hearings that letting Galt do the job would result in a potential major disaster -- like a fatal fire.

At the time, officials were dismissive.

Getting down the Deutsche bank tower was critical for the completion of the entire One World Trade Center and September 11th Memorial complex. The decision to combine the deconstruction and decontamination functions at the same time to speed the process proved disastrous.

Lower floors were wrapped in plastic and plywood to maintain the vapor lock needed for de-contamination a few floors above where workers were using acetylene torches to take down the steel beams, with cascades of sparks from the torches falling to the flammable floors below.

In then-Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau's final December 2008 report, investigators concluded  "the simultaneous abatement and deconstruction clearly made the building a fire hazard" with "several small fires" occurring in the three months before the fatal fire.  

After the August 2007 fatal fire – which was sparked by a discarded cigarette - the LMDC abandoned the notion of trying to simultaneously decontaminate and deconstruct the shrouded tower and replaced Galt.

Tens of millions were spent on site safety but actually site control was lax with workplace accidents and code violations common place.

Al Hagan, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, said that LMDC owned the building played a key role in the documented mismanagement of the demolition site. He said he believes the LMDC is responsible for what happened and didn’t happen at the 130 Liberty site.

"The responsible people were never brought to task ever," Hagan said. "There appeared to be a series of scapegoats and fall guys that were brought to the forefront and charged."

Mismanagement and Oversight

One of the most significant disclosures to come out of the exhaustive probe was the fact that not only had the fire department never properly inspected Deutsche Bank but also it had failed to conduct required inspections for all demolition and construction sites citywide.

In a phone interview with WNYC, Morgenthau, the former DA, said that the failures of oversight by both the FDNY and the Buildings Department were so egregious on Deutsche Bank that there was a faction of career prosecutors in his office that wanted to criminally indict them.

Morgenthau said he was concerned that instead of reforming how the city agencies operated right away he'd end up spending years on appeal as the city defended their right to sovereign immunity.

"The most important thing is before this case the FDNY did not take building inspections seriously. If I had pursued a criminal indictment there would have been no change in behavior," he said. 

As a result, he said, the FDNY created a special unit to do nothing but inspections. He said he won similar programmatic reforms from the Department of Buildings and Bovis the prime contractor. Bovis also paid $5 million to the families of the firefighters who died.

Glenn Corbbett, a professor of fire science at John Jay, said the city has also tightened regulations.

"Unfortunately, it took the lives of two firefighters for this to happen," said Corbbett. "But New York City has probably one of the most stringent and most detailed demolition regulations that are out there."

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance's office had no comment. The LMDC did not return a call for comment.

With Stephen Nessen