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Sprinklers were shut off at site of fatal New York fire

August 31, 2007|Ann Givens | Newsday

NEW YORK — The absence of a working sprinkler system in the former Deutsche Bank Building where two firefighters died Aug. 18 was not an accident, city and state officials said Thursday.

Shutting off the system was a deliberate decision made by regulators well before workers started taking apart the toxic, flammable building.

Explanations differ as to why and exactly when the building's sprinklers were shut off. A Fire Department official said they broke during the 2001 attacks and were never repaired, while a spokesman for the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the building's owner, said regulators shut the sprinklers off after Sept. 11 because pumps driving the water were contaminated.

But one thing is certain: Although maintaining a working sprinkler system is standard in most dangerous deconstruction projects, it was never required by regulators at the former bank building.

"If the sprinklers were in there and functioning, we wouldn't be talking right now, because the fire would have been extinguished and no one would have died," said Glenn Corbett, a fire science professor at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The deadly fire at the former Deutsche Bank building probably started after a worker failed to stamp out a cigarette on the 17th floor, city officials said this week. Firefighters faced a host of obstacles in addition to the absence of a sprinkler system, including blocked stairwells, piles of flammable materials and a broken central water pipe.

Joseph Graffagnino, 33, of Brooklyn, and Robert Beddia, 53, of Staten Island were killed fighting the fire.

Gregory Harrington, principal fire protection engineer at the National Fire Prevention Assn., a Quincy, Mass., nonprofit group that has written fire safety codes for numerous cities and states, said NFPA codes require that sprinkler systems remain on each floor of a building until that floor is ready to be demolished. It is unclear whether the city building and fire departments, which set sprinkler requirements, use NFPA codes.

A building department spokeswoman declined comment, saying the information was part of the ongoing investigation by Manhattan Dist. Atty. Robert Morgenthau and state Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo.

A Fire Department spokesman, Jim Long, said the sprinkler system broke on Sept. 11, 2001, and a decision was made not to replace it since the building was being torn down. Asked whether a sprinkler system was important, Long answered that it was not as important as the central water pipe.

Corbett said leaving the sprinklers in would have made asbestos removal in the building more difficult. But he and Harrington agreed it is possible and common for workers to shut off sprinkler systems one floor at a time.

"Removing the sprinkler system is sort of like taking the brakes out of your car. It means you have to be that much more careful that nothing else will go wrong," Corbett said.

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