Echoes of 9/11

by JENNA ORKIN

The tragic fire at the former Deutsche Bank building in Lower Manhattan on Saturday which took the lives of two firefighters, Joseph Graffagnino, 33 and Robert Beddia, 53, and which has already spawned a criminal investigation, 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 though the John Galt Corporation has proven as elusive as the eponymous character in the Ayn Rand novel, Atlas Shrugged, which opens with the question, "Who is John Galt?" it has served 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. And Safeway Environmental was the corporation in charge of a demolition on Manhattan’s Upper West Side when the building collapsed ahead of time, trapping pedestrians including a seven-month-old baby.

On top of this shaky foundation (not the sort one wants when demolishing a former Superfund site) the NYC Fire Department also failed to check the standpipes at the former Deutsche Bank building every 15 days as required by law. The Buildings Department maintains it conducted daily inspections of the floors under ‘deconstruction’ including on the day before the fire but it’s unclear whether anyone reported the broken standpipe in the basement which prevented water from reaching the two trapped firefighters.

Lest the reader assume that 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 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 on Saturday, 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 that essentially blame Saturday’s tragedy on the community’s preciousness about any remaining environmental hazards in the building. It is the community which first highlighted unsafe conditions at the site when, for instance, windows fell out of the building.

The 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.

The Wall Street Journal piece compares the community’s arguments (which are supported by scientific expertise and 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 effectively together for six years and have always been able to see through and rise above the divide-and-conquer tactics of their opponents.

JENNA ORKIN, founder of the World Trade Center Environmental Organization, is one of twelve original plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against the EPA. She can be reached at: Jennakilt@aol.com


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