N.Y. Deutsche Bank fire probe focuses on contractors

By Amy Westfeldt  

NEW YORK  — The August blaze that killed two firefighters at a condemned skyscraper across from ground zero exposed incompetence at multiple government agencies that either owned it or oversaw its long-delayed demolition.

But a months-old criminal investigation into the fire has apparently focused more attention on the private contractors working to dismantle a former bank building than the government agencies that hired them.

A grand jury has been meeting for weeks to consider criminal charges in the Aug. 18 fire at the former Deutsche Bank tower, people familiar with the investigation told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the criminal probe.

The Manhattan District Attorney's Office declined comment.

The prosecutor's office has interviewed hundreds of people and subpoenaed hundreds of thousands of pages of documents from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which owns the building; the city fire and buildings departments; and from the contractors hired to clean the building of toxic World Trade Center dust and take it down.

A construction worker's carelessly tossed cigarette is believed to have started the blaze on the 17th floor of the partially dismantled tower. No one has been criminally charged.

Following the blaze, the Fire Department reassigned three of its officers after acknowledging that it hadn't inspected the building, and the standpipe that provided water to its fire hoses, for over a year. Officials said the standpipe had been cut at the time of the blaze and left firefighters without water to fight the blaze.

Other government agencies who inspected the site on a near-daily basis were called out for not noticing fire hazards. And the LMDC was criticized for approving a subcontractor with no previous record of handling complicated demolition jobs.

The prosecutor's probe is trying to find out who maintained, dismantled and then was responsible for the broken standpipe that hampered firefighting efforts, another person familiar with the investigation told the AP.

Construction workers have told prosecutors that they removed a large section of the standpipe from the building's basement, mistaking it for a part of the tower's defunct sprinkler system.

Water meant for fire hoses poured into the basement while firefighters climbed up more than a dozen stories. Two firefighters died of cardiac arrest a few floors below the flames.

Prosecutors also want to find out who knew that employees of Safeway Environmental Corp., a contractor whose former owner had reputed mob ties, were working on the job, the person familiar with the investigation said.

City officials had recommended against Safeway as a contractor and the company oversaw the demolition of an Upper West Side supermarket that collapsed in 2005, injuring a baby and several others.

Officials who worked at the site of the bank tower have said that several people employed by Safeway joined the payroll of John Galt Corp., a subcontractor with no record of any previous demolition jobs.

The trade center's south tower crumbled into the 40-story building on Sept. 11, 2001, leaving it in ruins. The black-shrouded eyesore has come to symbolize the slow progress to rebuild ground zero and has residents concerned that dust left in the building for years endangered their health.

The LMDC bought the condemned building in 2004 and squabbled with environmental regulators about the best way to remove toxic debris from the building without polluting the air.

Most of the work at the building, which has been dismantled to 26 stories, has been on hold since August; John Galt Corp. was fired a week after the blaze. A new subcontractor was hired last week.

LMDC officials now say the building, first targeted to come down in 2005, will be dismantled sometime before the end of this year. Once demolition is complete, JPMorgan & Chase Co. plans to build its downtown headquarters at the site.

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