NYC: new health threat at Ground Zero

After last month’s deadly Con Ed blast, another eerie sense of deja vu for jittery New Yorkers—this one cutting even closer to home. From AP via Newsday, Aug. 20:

Investigators probe cause in fire that killed 2 NYC firefighters
NEW YORK – Fire marshals went back into a condemned ground zero skyscraper Monday in hopes of learning more about a blaze that killed two firefighters as details emerged about numerous unsafe working conditions at the troubled demolition site.

The city Buildings Department issued an order on Monday that officially halted all work at the site, except for repairs needed to keep the building safe after the damage from Saturday’s blaze.

Before the fire, the project had racked up a number of citations from city building inspectors for complaints including debris falling from the building and excessive amounts of combustible debris and plywood stacked around the site.

Just weeks ago, buildings inspectors found that torch work being performed on the 28th floor was causing sparks to rain down near combustible material, though that was ruled out as a cause of the weekend fire since crews had not been working with torches.

The city also had issued an order telling contractors to stop work until permits were renewed for storing hazardous material and compressed gases. Work was allowed to proceed on August 15 after a permit was updated.

The cause of the fire remained under investigation Monday; officials have said they believe it was not electrical but have not determined whether it was accidental.

Fire marshals have been questioning witnesses, including an elevator operator who first reported the blaze.

Investigators hoped to learn more in interviews with dozens of construction workers who have been on site in recent days. They also were interested in graffiti on a work shed that made reference to a burning building, authorities said.

Authorities said the floor-by-floor demolition of the former Deutsche Bank building _ which was damaged beyond repair in the World Trade Center attack nearly six years ago _ caused many unforeseen complications: The main water supply failed, the fire on the 17th floor was difficult to reach and the condemned 41-story building was thought to pose health risks to emergency responders and the neighborhood.

Excerpts of radio transmissions published in the Daily News from firefighters at the scene offered a terrifying glimpse of what happened just before the men died.

A voice on the 14th floor can be heard saying, “We’re outta air.” A second voice on the same floor says, “It’s starting to get bad up here. We gotta force our way.” And then, a third voice from the 15th floor: “We’re all running low on air and we’re really taking a beating up here on 15 … .”

The blaze began about a dozen floors up and burned on multiple floors of the building. The water supply system known as the standpipe did not work, forcing firefighters to use ropes to pull hoses to the upper floors to put out the seven-alarm blaze.

The plan for dismantling the building, submitted by the project’s main contractor to the owners last year, included a note that a “dry” standpipe would be maintained throughout the duration of the project.

Dry standpipes do not have water immediately available and can take several minutes to begin flowing, fire science expert Glenn Corbett said. They are typically used in open structures like freestanding parking garages, but city fire and building codes also allow them at demolition projects of this type, he said.

Many other jurisdictions throughout the country would not allow dry standpipes, he said. In some cases, if not capped properly, he said, they can fail and have air pressure problems.

A spokeswoman for the main contractor, Bovis Lend Lease, declined comment on the standpipe. The city could not say on Sunday who was responsible for inspecting it.

In addition to the water failure, authorities said some of the materials being used to protect the environment from toxins may have worsened the situation as firefighters tried to control the flames.

More than 10 floors of the skyscraper were sealed off with polyurethane to keep toxic dust containing asbestos, lead and trade center materials from leaking out into the air.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer said the protective materials were there because of federal Environmental Protection Agency requirements; a spokeswoman for the agency said it was a state labor requirement.

No matter what the reason or whose rules were set, Spitzer said the polyurethane sheets on the building “may in fact have made this fire harder to fight.”

And for Downtown residents, its a case of once bitten twice shy. Again from Newsday:

Residents fret over air, again
Some lower Manhattan residents remained on edge a day after a deadly fire broke out at a building across from Ground Zero, with many calling on the city to better coordinate emergency responses.

The fire at the Deutsche Bank building killed two firefighters and sent a plume of smoke across the sky where the Twin Towers once stood. Saturday’s blaze remains under investigation.

Those who live near the area said it reminded them of the terrorist attacks six years ago, and how vulnerable they still are should another tragedy strike.


“It was like I was back on 9/11,” said Pat Moore, whose building faces Ground Zero to the front and the charred Deutsche Bank building to the side. “There we were, back on the roof again, watching the whole thing burning, and wondering if it was going to collapse.”

Residents of the area have long felt that they were mislead after 9/11 into believing that the air quality around their homes was safer than it was, and many still suffer respiratory ailments related to the collapse of the Twin Towers

Gov. Elliot Spitzer toured the site earlier Sunday and declared the air quality safe.

“There are numerous air quality monitors in this vicinity,” Spitzer said. “And this is ongoing, it has been persistent. Every one of them has been negative for asbestos; every one of them has been negative for the fine particulate matter that is of concern to us.”

Many remained skeptical.

“What I hear is that the air is safe to breathe,” said Moore. “But I don’t know whether or not to believe it.”

Borough President Scott Stringer called for an investigation into what kinds of contaminants were released from the fire

“The last time people were lied to,” he said. “We are not going to sit down until we are satisfied that the air quality is safe.”

The Deutsche Bank building has remained vacant since it was damaged beyond repair on 9/11 and found to contain toxic contaminants.

See our last post on Ground Zero.