An Eerie Disaster at "The Most Watched Building In New York City"
Saturday afternoon, August 18th, 2007: Disaster struck at Ground Zero yet
again today, claiming the lives of two more firemen, just steps away from
where nearly 400 of their comrades and thousands of civilians died less than a
month short of six years ago. A fire in an abandoned high rise at the scene
of the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers on September 11, 2001
claimed the lives of two firemen and injured 50 others. The contractor in
charge of dismantling the former Deutsche Bank Building at 130 Liberty Street in
New York City had failed to maintain a water supply system called a
"standpipe." The firefighters who died did so because there was no water supply
to the floor that they were trapped on. Adding to the difficulty, EPA-required plastic sheathing surrounded the building,
concentrating heat, smoke, fumes and toxic particles inside of the empty
The building initially suffered catastrophic damage when a portion of the
South Tower of the World Trade Center carved a fourteen story gash in the facade
of the building. The building was condemned and ordered dismantled. The building
had been condemned after debris (later deemed toxic) rained down on it during
the collapse of the South Tower. Among the debris were 700 pieces of human remains, the first evidence of which were found on the roof of the
building shortly after the 2001 disaster. The construction of the building
itself added to the reasons for condemnation because toxic materials including
asbestos, lead, mercury and dioxin had been exposed to the air by the damage.
Additionally, the building's own sprinkler system saturated it and the exposure
to the elements due to the hole from the damage, and broken windows, caused
widespread growth of mold. As recently as September 29, 2005, human remains from the
victims of the World Trade Center collapse have been found on the roof of the
On February 26, 2004 an agreement was reached with Deutsche Bank and its
partners in ownership in the building, The City of New York, and AXA Insurance
to pay Deutsche Bank a $140 million insurance claim. The building's owners, in
turn, would sell the structure to the Lower Manhattan Development Development
Corporation for $90 million. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation would
then demolish the structure at a cost of $45 million. Demolition was to have
started in early 2004 but was hindered by myriad hurdles including lawsuits, EPA
regulations, and failure of the contractors hired to demolish the building to
comply with various city, state and Federal regulations (which resulted in
stop-work orders). Between the lawsuits against insurers, the indecision whether
to renovate or rebuild, and the proximity of the empty building to Ground Zero
(and speculation that its space would become part of the new World Trade
Tower) it has been called "The most watched building in New York City."
The handsome jet-black building with outside pillars tilting ever-so-slightly
inward was built in 1974 by the prestigious architectural firm of Shreve, Lamb &
Harmon Associates for the Bankers' Trust Company. It was later sold to Deutsche
Bank. In the architectural firm's first incarnation, as Shreve & Lamb, they
built a 70 story building in 1930 in hot competition with the Chrysler
Building as the tallest tower on New York's skyline. The owner of the building
happened to be Donald Trump's dad. Beside building the enormous
Parkchester Houses complex (high-rise apartment buildings) in the Bronx, New
York, they built quite a few structures on Park Avenue in Manhattan, they built
a very famous one on Fifth Avenue; the building that beat the Chrysler Building
and, in the absence of the World Trade Center Towers, is now the tallest
building in New York City: The Empire State Building.
The jet-black color was one of the most interesting features of the building.
Never needing painted, the color was effected by using an anodized
aluminum facade and smoke-colored windows. The 41-floor structure was set back
dramatically from the street on three sides. On two, a block-long stairway led
up to an outdoor plaza partially covered by a cantelievered canopy surrounding a
lobby enclosed in floor-to-ceiling glass. A private dining room and board rooms
occupied the top floors. After September 11, 2001, the building became most
famous for being the lone eerily dark structure towering like a monster over the wreckage and
the smaller buildings surrounding the area, swaddled in black mesh to prevent
falling debris, upon which construction workers hung an enormous American Flag,
facing the debris of the fallen World Trade Towers. At the time of the fire, the
building had been demolished from within down to the 26th floor. The flag had
been hung on a higher floor before demolition commenced.
A Perspective on The Site
This writer was a guest at the Millenium Hilton Hotel, adjacent to Ground
Zero, in late 2003. The purpose of the visit was to meet with friends from out
of town and show them "The Big Apple:" New York in all its glory. Morbid
curiosity (and the low rates because of low occupancy levels) got the best of me
and I booked a sky-high room on the Ground Zero side. Looming to the left was
the still untouched Deutsche Bank Building (known to those familiar with Lower
Manhattan as The Bankers' Trust building due to an enormous bronze sculpture of
the Bank's logo which was located for a long time in the vast plaza leading to
the entrance to the lobby.
The staff was silent when I asked them if they thought there were ghosts
lurking about, no doubt at the direction of management. There's been little talk
of ghosts, but for the use of ghosts as a metaphor by Village Voice
Magazine writers Tim Robbins and Jennifer Gonnerman in their absorbing and amazingly well-written piece "City of Ghosts: 100
minutes of tragedy that will haunt us all," archived at
My friends refused to stay in the same hotel, opting instead for far more
expensive digs uptown in the Theater District, and only once during my one-week
stay did they meet me with great trepidation and come upstairs for an extremely
brief view. Their visit to the hotel ended with a luncheon of the fifth floor
restaurant's spectacular lobster salad accompanied by a delightful violet-petal
scented Viognier from Napa. The view from the restaurant looks out on the
Statue of Liberty and the harbor. Oh, by the way, I saw no ghosts during my
entire stay. Just a pink elephant or two after a particularly raucous party
lasting until 4:00 in the morning.
Who's Protecting Who? Contradictory Regulations; No Water Cited As Cause of Fatalities
It's peculiar that even after the fire burnt itself out the day after it
started, a construction shed was left on the ground level of the site with
graffiti hinting that the building was "gonna burn." NYFD Fire Marshals stated that the writing had been there for months.
A company called Bovis Lend Lease, was awarded the contract to dismantle the
structure. Their construction plans (as they are called, they're really
destruction plans) specified that a source of water would be available
throughout the demolition process. This is mandated by the New York City Fire
Code. 130 Liberty Street had three separate "standpipes," building-tall 6" or
wider water pipes meant to carry water to emergency fire hoses located in glass
cabinets installed in the walls throughout the building. All skyscrapers in the
country are required to have fire suppression systems of this type. Now, Bovis
Lend Lease sub-contracted the "abatement" of the asbestos in the building to an
outfit called John Galt Co. Until this project, Galt had no experience in
asbestos removal, nor in demolition.
It's a funny coincidence that some of the executives of the John Galt Co.
were also executives of a company responsible for the demolition of a structure
on the upper West Side in 2005, the progress of which was punctuated by a massive
collapse. The New York Daily News reported in 2005 and in the current
matter that the executives were "reputed to have mob ties." That sells papers
but the opinion of this writer is that perhaps they were just "wiseguy wanna-bees,"
as the control of organized crime over concrete, demolition, steel and
construction was exquisitely diluted by the evidence collected against the late
Paul "Big Paul" Castellano, and the resulting prosecution and conviction of
John Gotti and legions of his underlings by the F.B.I. working under Rudolph
Giuliani and Federal Prosecutor Diane Giacalone.
Now, the Buildings Department had cited Galt for myriad violations, not the
least of which being keeping a sloppy work site. The mess even led to a
stop-work order until the dangerous materials (plywood and the likes) were
removed. Fire regulations require that where oxy-acetylene torches (to cut
through steel girders) are being used there are to be no combustible materials
nor rubbish in the entire structure. Again, there's also to be at least
one operating standpipe in a building at all times, even during demolition.
Prior to the fire, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) was
investigating safety hazards including lack of safety equipment, a steel pipe
which fell 35 floors to the ground, and a worker who fell 40 feet within the
Surprisingly, a spokesperson for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation,
which selected Bovis Lend Lease, called for a stop to the "speculation" about
the executives at Galt and pointed out that there were four safety monitors in
the building at the time the fire started.
Now The Count's 13 Dead for the Sixth Avenue Firehouse
Firefighters Robert Beddia and Joe Graffagnino were no strangers to tragedy.
Their fire company, Engine No. 24 and Ladder Co. No. 5 on 6th Avenue, lost 11 of
its members on September 11th, 2001. Both were seasoned veterans of the force
and both were acutely aware of the dangers particular to high-rise fires,
especially under special conditions like this. Neither one realized that when
they emerged from the stairwell on the 14th floor, they'd have no water supply
to their hoses. They went in looking for another standpipe but soon became
overwhelmed by the maze-like complex of empty offices. The anti-asbestos
shrouding held in the smoke and kept precious oxygen out. Their own oxygen
tanks, useable for 45 minutes normally, were rapidly depleted by their run up
the stairs toward the burning floors.
The two finally called "Mayday, mayday" on their radios and indicated they
were running out of air. Their co-workers reached them too late. They died on
the 14th floor of the empty building. The building was basically a white
elephant - but the fire had to be put out to prevent damage to the neighboring
buildings, and the firefighters had to go in to be certain that there weren't
construction workers trapped by smoke or fire.
As soon as the pair cried "mayday," their captain, in the interest of the
safety of his men, called the rest of the fire and rescue personnel out of the
building, in order to take roll call. That's when they determined the two were
missing. After water hoses were raised via rope and tackle to the 17th floor,
enough was available to stop the blaze's progress. The men who went back in
recovered their comrades and allowed the fire to burn out in fits and spurts,
lasting nearly 24 hours.
Frightening tapes of the final Fire Department radio conversations before the
evacuation of the building include unidentified firefighters complaining that
the stairwells and doors had been covered up with plywood and that it would take
an impossible amount of time to check each floor for survivors. Then the screams
of the suffocating, dying firemen could be heard, complaining that they had no
vision due to smoke and were rapidly running out of air.
Now read the above paragraph again. Carefully. Plywood blocking the
stairwells? Well, that's what they do during an asbestos abatement project, just
normally not all at once. The plastic covering the exterior of the building was
required by the EPA and OSHA. All of these procedures, contradictory to fire
safety, will certainly be investigated in the coming months. That's little
comfort for the widow of Firefighter Graffagnino and the family of Firefighter
Beddia. These brave men have now paid the ultimate price to join the other 343
members of the Fire Department of the City of New York who perished due to the
World Trade Center disaster, however indirectly.
The Intrepid Neighborhood
Some residents of the lovely old buildings in lower Manhattan chose
to stay in their apartments as soon as they were let back in after the 2001
disaster. Despite this new disaster, which may have released unknown quantities
of toxic substances into the air immediately around Ground Zero yet again, the
same residents who stayed last time plan to continue. The EPA has installed air
quality monitoring devices and Governor Eliot Spitzer guaranteed the residents
that there were no harmful levels of any toxins in the air due to the fire.
The Daily News reports that some scientific studies indicate that approximately 400,000 people were
exposed to toxic dust from Ground Zero. Hundreds have become sick, and some have
died due to complications from exposure. There is an ongoing controversy
regarding the toxicity of exposure, whether at the site or farther away.
About the current fatalities, Steve Cassidy, Chairman of the Firefighters'
Union, stated: ""It is devastating to lose two firefighters, especially in a
building that is essentially a vertical Love Canal and a toxic pile of
rubbish. This is inexcusable."
An aside: thing that may perplex readers, especially if they refer to the Case Study by Weidinger Associates (cited below). While it's certain that no single building that remains standing today withstood anything approaching the damage endured by 130 Liberty Street, the building was still standing and structurally sound enough to have workmen roaming all about its 41 floors. If the asbestos need be removed in the first place, why not remove it from the building's skeleton, fix the darned thing and start from there. This writer is no student of architecture but it just seems like another case of waste and a "disposable culture."
Emporis.com "Deal Reached To Demolish 130 Liberty Street" by Rick Bronson,
February, 2004 http://www.emporis.com/en/bu/nc/ne/?id=101076 (Accessed 8/20/07)
Case Study by Robert Smilowitz, Weidinger Associates (Consultants) including
floor plans of the extent of the damage (floors 9-23) and photographs of
Investigators Probe N.Y. Skyscraper Fire, by Amy Westfeldt, Forbes
Magazine, (via Associated Press) August 20, 2007
http://www.forbes.com/feeds/ap/2007/08/20/ap4035053.html (Accessed 8/20/07)
Website of the Millenium Hilton®
"Terror Pays A Second Visit" by Juan Gonzales, The New York Daily News,
August 20, 2007 and related stories in same issue.
Website of Emporis Buildings®
www.emporis.com (Various: 130 Liberty Street, History of Shreve, Lamb &
Harmon Associates) (Accessed 8/20/07)
"Battle to Save Trapped Firefighters:" N.Y. Fire Department Radio
Transcripts, by Veronika Belenkaya, Bill Egbert, Michael Oates and Alison
Gendar: The Daily News, New York, August 20, 2007
(Accessed 8/20/07) Also see "Related Stories."