Fire Claims Lives of Two Firefighters at Ground Zero; Wall St. Journal Blames Community


Fire Claims Lives of Two Firefighters at Ground Zero; Wall St. Journal Blames Community

by Jenna Orkin*
August 27, 2007

The tragic fire at the former Deutsche Bank building in Lower Manhattan nine days ago which took the lives of two firefighters, Joseph Graffagnino, 33 and Robert Beddia, 53, and which has already spawned two criminal investigations, highlights problems about which the community of Lower Manhattan has been warning for years.

The company hired to perform the demolition of the building whose chief claim to fame, post-9/11, was that it had been contaminated with 150,000 times the normal levels of asbestos among other toxic substances, (which have since been reduced to a supposedly “safe” level) has “apparently never done any work like it” nor much of anything else since it was  incorporated in 1983.

But while the John Galt Corporation has proven as mysterious as the eponymous character in the Ayn Rand novel, Atlas Shrugged – which opens with the question, “Who is John Galt?” – this elusiveness has allowed it to serve as an effective front for members of Safeway Environmental Corporation whose contract had been cancelled because of mob connections. One of Safeway’s owners, Hank Greenberg, is a two-time felon who has been linked by the FBI to the Gambino crime family. So it was no great surprise, when a building in the process of demolition on Manhattan’s Upper West Side collapsed ahead of time, trapping pedestrians including a seven-month-old baby, to learn that Safeway Environmental was in charge.

Another firm involved in the demolition of the former Deutsche Bank, United Research Services, told Minnesota transportation officials that it would be able to fix flaws in the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed this summer.

A third firm, Bovis Lend Lease “presided over” nine major safety incidents in the past five years apart from those at the former Deutsche Bank.

On top of this shaky foundation (not the sort one wants when demolishing the equivalent of a former Superfund site) the NYC Fire Department failed to check the standpipes at the former Deutsche Bank building every 15 days as required by law. Thus the firefighters who went in on Saturday were unaware of the broken standpipe in the basement which prevented water from reaching the two trapped members of their company.

Lest the reader assume that last Saturday’s tragedy might result in at least a temporary show of caution, the following Thursday two more firefighters sustained serious head injuries from debris that fell from scaffolding at the site.

Shocking as all these events are, they are no surprise to the community of Lower Manhattan which initially brought to the public’s attention the shadowy connections of Safeway  Environmental, protested the hiring of the equally dubious John Galt Corporation, highlighted unsafe conditions at the site such as windows falling out of the building and urged the City and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which owns the former Deutsche Bank building, to put in place emergency plans both for the work site as well as for the surrounding area.

Yet when the fire broke out, many residents received no warnings or instructions.

It is therefore particularly galling to read an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal as well as a letter in the New York Times which essentially blame Saturday’s tragedy on the community’s preciousness about any remaining environmental hazards in the building.

The Times letter, whose writer lives in Brooklyn, maintains that the community’s concern for ‘every speck of dust and every fiber of asbestos’ has delayed the demolition process and that somehow that delay caused the fire. For if the building had already been demolished, it wouldn’t have caught fire, now, would it? And if you could go back in time and stop your grandparents from meeting….

The Wall Street Journal article compares the community’s arguments (which are supported by scientific expertise as well as legal precedent) to “the endless debate and litigation we’ve also layered into efforts to surveil and prosecute terrorists.” (That pesky Constitution again.)

The arguments put forth in these two pieces attempt to pit the interests of firefighters and site workers against those of residents, office workers and students. In fact, these populations have worked together effectively for six years and have always been able to see through the divide-and-conquer tactics of their opponents. They understand that such finger-pointing is designed to divert attention from the corrupt entities whose purported job is to protect the public but whose true purpose is to uphold the economy (particularly their own piece of it.) In this latter endeavor those entities have indeed done a heckuva job.

*Jenna Orkin of the World Trade Center Environmental Organization, is one of twelve original plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against the EPA.


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