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 building.

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 building.

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 Building

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,gonnerman,28295,2.html.

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 site.

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."

SOURCES: "Deal Reached To Demolish 130 Liberty Street" by Rick Bronson, February, 2004 (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 structural damage. (Accessed 8/20/07)

Investigators Probe N.Y. Skyscraper Fire, by Amy Westfeldt, Forbes Magazine, (via Associated Press) August 20, 2007 (Accessed 8/20/07)

Website of the Millenium Hilton® (Accessed 8/20/07)

"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 BuildingsĀ® (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."

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.