Out of sight, but never out of mind


BY Aline Reynolds

Joseph Graffagnino Sr., the father of a New York City firefighter who died in the 2007 Deutsche Bank building fire, delivered an unexpected and poignant testimony on Monday evening at 250 Broadway.

His remarks stood in juxtaposition to a presentation made only minutes later by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation on the demolition of 130 Liberty Street, where the Deutsche building once stood. The presentation marked the end of a flawed and delayed project that took Joseph Peter Graffagnino Jr.’s life two days before his 34th birthday. He died on August 18, 2007 along with 53-year-old Robert Beddia, in a blaze that set afire the upper floors of the building that were undergoing demolition.

Thirty-nine months later, Graffagnino Sr. said, it was discovered that the demolition job wasn’t carried out properly.

“When questioned about their responsibilities, we heard hundreds of excuses, including they weren’t trained, didn’t understand, or didn’t think it applied to them,” he said.

It is “inconceivable,” Graffagnino Sr. said, that the building violations at 130 Liberty Street were accidental.

Nevertheless, the fire brought safety and regulations of NYC buildings in the spotlight.

State and city “watchdogs” he said, are now monitoring buildings all over Manhattan to ensure that safety requirements are met.

“Does it slow down construction and deconstruction of buildings? Yes, it does,” he said. “Does it add to the costs and time involved? Of course. But it should prevent another tragedy from happening, and it does safeguard not only first responders, but also our fellow citizens.”

Heightened security enforcement, however, is coming at taxpayers’ expense. The L.M.D.C., Graffanigno Sr. noted, spent more than $900,000 in legal fees since the incident; and the city spent $6.5 million.

The NYC Department of Buildings and the Fire Department of New York issued 27 “stop work orders” against Bovis Lend Lease for safety violations – the equivalent of nearly two per month – from March 2009 to May 2010. Yet the New York County District Attorney did not reopen the criminal case against contractors John Galt whom Bovis hired for the job when he had the opportunity noted Graffagnino Sr.

“It seems that law enforcement officials and politicians just want to keep their jobs while millions of tax dollars are wasted and New Yorkers are put at risk,” said Graffagnino Sr.

Community Board 1 Chair Julie Menin reminded Graffinigno Sr. that C.B. 1 passed a resolution opposing the L.M.D.C.’s hiring of John Galt to demolish the building in the city after hearing about supposed links to the mafia and the company’s lack of experience.

“They completely ignored us,” said Menin, “and said we didn’t know what we were talking about.”

“The result was an absolutely tragic event, where two firefighters lost their lives.”

“We have no comment on [Graffanigno’s] statement,” said L.M.D.C. Spokesperson John DeLibero in an e-mail.

Demolition of the 41-story tower which was contaminated with asbestos and other harmful toxins from falling debris on 9/11 was finally completed last week. Bovis, the company hired for the job, is now removing the structural steel, rebar and concrete from the site. Air monitoring will be ongoing until the end of the month.

“As long as materials original to building will be on the site, some form of monitoring going on,” said Josh Rosenbloom, director of city operations at the L.M.D.C.

The committee said now that 130 Liberty is down, it is time for the L.M.D.C. to devise a sunset plan. Bureaucracies such as the L.M.D.C. tend to perpetuate themselves longer than necessary, according to committee member Bill Love. “The original mission is over,” he said. “We’re reaching the end of the line with the L.M.D.C.”

He and the other members voted unanimously in favor of a resolution that urges the L.M.D.C. to release its remaining grant money and transfer any additional legal and compliance tasks to other state and city agencies.

“The transfer of all such duties,” the resolution states, “should be completed as soon as possible and an orderly dissolution of the agency should certainly occur no later than the tenth anniversary of September 11.”

DeLibero said the L.M.D.C. wouldn’t comment on its plans to sunset.

The committee also requests that the land swap between the L.M.D.C. and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey occur as soon as possible, so that construction of the underground Vehicle Security Center parking complex can begin.

The two parties made an agreement in 2003 to exchange the parcel at 130 Liberty with approximately eight acres of land that will be the future site of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

The Port Authority, which is currently using 130 Liberty as a staging ground for the V.S.C., will have full access to the site by the end of the month, according to the L.M.D.C. But, while the L.M.D.C. is granting access to the Port Authority, the land swap has not taken place, according to Rosenbloom.

“We’re working on sorting out different political, legal and financial arrangements,” Rosenbloom told the committee, deeming it a “very long, time-consuming process.” He wouldn’t disclose a tentative date for the land swap.

“There are a lot of [agencies] that have to approve it before it can be negotiated,” explained John Delibero, a spokesperson for the L.M.D.C.

Construction of the V.S.C. would begin immediately after the swap is finalized, according to a Port Authority spokesperson. It is scheduled for completion next year.

The resolution also called on the Port Authority, the future owner of 130 Liberty, to initiate an open, transparent public planning process for the redevelopment of the site “in a financially sustainable matter.”