Officials get their standpipe stories straight a week later

By Julie Shapiro

Clear answers were hard to find in the week after a worker at the Deutsche Bank building accidentally severed the building’s standpipe.

After several versions, all the parties finally agreed on these facts a week after the accident: The alarm on the standpipe, which supplies the upper floors with water during a fire, went off at 8:30 a.m. Thurs., Feb. 5 when a worker removed a 10-foot section of the pipe. Interior demolition work continued in the building for seven hours after the alarm warned that the standpipe was not functioning.

In the earliest version of the events, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which owns the building, said all work stopped immediately after the worker cut the pipe Thursday morning. But F.D.N.Y. spokesperson Jim Long said Friday that work continued until the end of the shift around 3:30 p.m. The L.M.D.C. also said workers in the building were evacuated in the afternoon, but Long said the word “evacuation” was not precisely correct.

“It wasn’t an evacuation so much as a change in shifts,” Long said, with the night shift barred from the building after the day shift finished.

When told of Long’s account, Mike Murphy, L.M.D.C. spokesperson, acknowledged that work continued after the alarm went off.

Murphy and Long were on the same page by Friday afternoon, and it looked like the confusion was over. But at a Community Board 1 meeting several days later, Cas Holloway, chief of staff to Dep. Mayor Ed Skyler, promulgated an entirely different account.

“It wasn’t until later in the afternoon that the cut happened,” Holloway told C.B. 1’s W.T.C. Redevelopment Committee Monday night with absolute certainty. “After the pipe was cut, the building was evacuated immediately.”

The committee was surprised to hear a version of the events that differed so widely from what the F.D.N.Y. and the L.M.D.C. had said in news reports, but Holloway insisted that his account was the correct one. Then, Murphy, the L.M.D.C. spokesperson, addressed the community board and corroborated Holloway’s account, adding to the committee’s surprise.

As it turned out, Holloway’s account, which Murphy echoed, was wrong, Tony Sclafani, Buildings Dept. spokesperson, said Wednesday. The correct account was the widely disseminated version from last Friday — reported at DowntownExpress.com that day — which means the standpipe was cut in the morning.

“It came from us,” Sclafani said of the confusion. “We should have updated our information but we did not.”

Holloway told the community board the standpipe alarm initially went off because of a frozen valve Thursday morning, then went off a second time later in the afternoon when the standpipe was cut. The Buildings Dept. initially thought that was what happened, but an investigation revealed that was not the case, Sclafani said.

The community is growing frustrated by the continued back-and-forth about the accident.

“Roughly seven days after the incident, the community is still getting conflicting information,” said Catherine McVay Hughes, chairperson of the W.T.C. Committee, on Wednesday. “The community is still trying to get to the bottom of what happened.”

Last Thursday was the first time the standpipe alarm sounded since it was installed in the wake of the 2007 blaze in the building that killed two firefighters. A broken standpipe left the firefighters trapped in the building without water during that fire. The three construction managers who are accused of removing a section of the standpipe prior to the fire to speed the cleaning of the building, now face manslaughter and other charges from the district attorney.

The worker who accidentally cut the pipe Thursday was on the second floor of the 26-story building removing sheetrock from the ceiling, part of the exhaustive cleaning protocol to rid the building of asbestos contamination. The worker found the standpipe, which usually runs vertically up the building, running horizontally behind the sheetrock. Not realizing its importance, he cut off 10 feet of it.

The worker who cut the pipe, with subcontractor LVI Environmental Services, did not realize it was a standpipe because it was not painted red, as the standpipe is supposed to be, though it “did have red markings on it,” said Long, from the F.D.N.Y.

“How could he not recognize the standpipe?” asked an incredulous Hughes, from the community board.

Hughes said workers should have been evacuated as soon as the alarm went off, not seven hours later when their shift ended.

“If the standpipe isn’t working and there’s a fire, how would you put the fire out?” Hughes said. “Obviously, on this job, we know how important standpipes are.”

The F.D.N.Y. did not want to evacuate the building until they figured out what the problem was, but they immediately told local firehouses the standpipe wasn’t working, Long said. It took the F.D.N.Y. until 3 p.m. to discover the gap in the pipe on the second floor, because they were busy checking each of the pipe’s valves, assuming the breach was small and easy to fix, Long said. The gauge on the system, which measures air pressure in the pipe, showed that it still had some pressure, which led the F.D.N.Y. to assume a small leak, not a gaping hole.

“Generally, you’re not thinking someone cut anything,” Long said.

Plumbers repaired the standpipe by 10 p.m. Thursday, and the Buildings Dept. lifted its brief stop-work order shortly afterward, the L.M.D.C.’s Murphy said. The L.M.D.C. pumped water through the repaired standpipe earlier this week, and the standpipe passed the test.

The L.M.D.C. will not jump right back into the decontamination work that had been going round the clock until the standpipe breach. While fine-cleaning work on the fourth and fifth floors is continuing, any heavy work on the first three floors will wait until the L.M.D.C. repaints and retags the entire standpipe and meets with all the construction supervisors, Murphy said. The L.M.D.C. also plans to enlarge the maps on each floor that show where the standpipe is. The safety improvements will likely be complete by the end of the week.

Government regulators are currently reviewing a demolition plan for the building, which was heavily damaged on 9/11. The L.M.D.C. will post the demolition plan online by the end of the week and will hold a public meeting about it on March 5 at 5:30 p.m.

The physical removal of the top of the building has been on hold since the fatal fire, but contractors began removing the facade at the end of last year. The L.M.D.C. hopes the deconstruction will resume by the end of April and finish by mid-October.