Saturday, August 25, 2007

Two New Deaths, Same Old Questions

Published: August 25, 2007

In a partnership with the State of New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s government owns a ruined, contaminated skyscraper at 130 Liberty Street, across from the World Trade Center site. The building appears to have been a howling firetrap, the kind for which private owners would be indicted in days. Last week it killed two men, Firefighters Robert Beddia, 53, and Joseph Graffagnino, 33.

Mr. Bloomberg and his partner, Gov. Eliot Spitzer, preached at the funerals that they would find out what their own governments had done.

Here is a short list: They hired what appeared to be a shell corporation to demolish the building. This company plugged stairwells with plywood to keep asbestos from flying around. Workers clipped sprinkler lines. Someone cut a standpipe, a dry water main that is reserved for delivering water during fires.

On many floors, the workers left a carpet knife and a flashlight by plywood doors that led to the stairways. Because the doors were draped with sheets of plastic, the knife could be used in an emergency to get out. The floors, being slowly demolished, were mazes.

All this was done under the eyes of inspectors from Mr. Bloomberg’s Buildings Department. They were in 130 Liberty almost every day, along with agents of Mr. Spitzer from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the official name of the partnership between the governor and the mayor. They issued piles of citations.

However, no one from other branches of the governments run by Mr. Bloomberg or Mr. Spitzer got around to telling the Fire Department exactly what was going on. And no one from the Fire Department bothered to find out.

Even though there is a firehouse next door to 130 Liberty Street, no firefighter had set foot in the building to inspect it for about a year. No one from Mr. Bloomberg’s government has yet explained their absence. Nor has anyone explained why the Fire Department had not taken part in discussions about the building’s demolition.

The first mission of the department is to respond to fires. Its second “critical objective,” as defined by the Mayor’s Management Report, is to “reduce the risk of fire incidents through quality inspections, investigations and public education.”

With the city booming and with vast new resources, the Fire Department has conducted 8,000 fewer inspections since 2001, while its budget has grown by more than a third. Officials say this is a normal fluctuation.

The calamity of 130 Liberty Street is not the sole responsibility of the Fire Department, but it will be firefighters who will be buried after the next Liberty Street, wherever it may be, if the department does not figure out how this one happened. If it is possible for the mayor and the governor to conduct thorough investigations of their own government, it still will fall to the Fire Department to protect its members by understanding how this could have happened. If it can.

The modern Fire Department grew out of 19th-century volunteer organizations that were aligned with gangs and politicians. With mass deaths in early high rises, the department emancipated itself from political influence and became a force for reform of building codes. It also became an organization devoted to merit hiring, in the process creating a culture of civil service fundamentalism. The highest-ranking officers are chosen by test. This has had its historic virtues, but it has also clogged the department’s ability to shape and scrutinize itself.

“You have no accountability at the senior levels,” said Thomas Von Essen, who was the fire commissioner under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. He noted that in 2001, three firefighters, John Downing, Brian Fahey and Harry Ford, were killed on Father’s Day, fighting a fire in a hardware storage area that had not been inspected in years.

Three months later, the attacks of Sept. 11 found other weak spots: 343 firefighters died. Now, what appears to have been an accidental fire a week ago has killed two more.

In “Young Men and Fire,” a book about a forest fire that killed 12 firefighters, the author, Norman Maclean, wrote that such a disaster had to be honestly examined; otherwise, it would leave “terror without consolation or explanation.”

“Perhaps most catastrophes end this way without an ending, the dead not even knowing how they died,” Mr. Maclean wrote, and “those who loved them forever questioning this ‘unnecessary death,’ and the rest of us tiring of this inconsolable catastrophe and turning to the next one.”



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