Downtown Express: Trial points to need for new policies

July 14, 2011


With the culmination of the Deutsche Bank trial last week, in which all three defendants were found “not guilty,” there is a movement to reopen the case so that a tragedy such as the one that, in 2007, took the lives of NYC firefighters Joseph Graffagnino Jr. and Robert Beddia, will never happen again.

Last summer the New York State legislature passed a bill, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Squadron and supported by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, that established a task force to address the problems that may have led to the incident. When the fire broke out, firefighters did not have architectural plans for the building and essentially went into the blaze blindfolded. Once inside, they confronted a nightmarish labyrinth of sealed plywood hatches and thick plastic sheeting.

In Squadron’s own words, “In any privately-owned or city-owned building, firefighters and first responders can be sure that if the rules were followed, everything will be consistent. In state-and public-authority owned buildings, they can’t be sure of that.”

In the last week two separate groups have issued statements asking for the entire case to be re-opened. Both groups cite former District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s acknowledgement that a consultant hired by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, who owned the building, warned the agency that the building was an accident waiting to happen. Furthermore, Morgenthau cited seven fires that occurred in the building from the time demolition began up to the fatal fire on August 18, 2007. The L.M.D.C. failed to report any of the fires to the appropriate agencies outlined in their own Emergency Action Plan.

Whether or not this information and the re-opening of the case would lead to a conviction is not the point. Indeed, the conviction of any defendant, whether it is a single person or an entire agency, will not undo the tragedy that befell Graffagnino and Beddia on that day.

The ultimate goal is to make sure such a tragedy never happens again. That is the charge of the task force established last summer. There is plenty of work to do, as there were serious missteps in this case by a number of key players, including the fire department, the department of buildings, and the L.M.D.C.

March 2012 is the deadline for the task force to submit its findings and recommendations in Albany.We hope they do their due diligence and come up with a policy that will keep all NYC firefighters and first responders safe. Perhaps that means an intense vetting of all contractors charged with the demolition of city buildings. Or perhaps it means simply making every building in the city, regardless of who owns it, subject to the city’s fire code.

But amidst the rapid development currently taking place in Lower Manhattan, we hope the task force presents its recommendations early, before the deadline. The next legislative session begins in January and we believe this to be an item that should be placed at the top of the agenda.

Governor Cuomo is in the unique position of having served as the State’s Attorney General when the tragedy happened and is more than familiar with the case. We strongly encourage him to come to the fore on this issue and use his weight and wisdom to fast track the outcome.

Click here to read the article in the Downtown Express.