Saturday, May 3, 2008

Skyscraper Safety in NYC Post-9/11

For weeks, a group of student-reporters at New York University set out to understand and describe skyscraper safety in New York in the post-September 11, 2001 era. The product became the stories you see posted here. Members of Prof. Jan Barry’s Investigations in Depth class looked into everything from the width of stairwells in commercial buildings to evacuation procedures, from problems in high-rise residential buildings to recent construction-related deaths in the city. New Yorkers, visitors to the city and workers want to be safe not just inside buildings, but also while walking by buildings and working on the buildings. The 15-part report was produced by a diverse group of student-reporters (see bios after each story) over the course of a semester. We hope these stories will add substance to the discussion about skyscraper safety in New York City.

Clash of Past, Present and Future Offers Context

Glenn Corbett speaking in front of a class at NYU's Department of Journalism

Photo by Mike Weiss

By Jonathan Starkey

New York, May 2 - Glenn Corbett was driving north on the New Jersey turnpike just before 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001.

A professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, Corbett was taking his normal route toward the park-and-ride in North Bergen, N.J., to catch a Manhattan-bound bus when he saw smoke billowing from a building Downtown. The A.M. radio station Corbett checked for news was ominously silent. Once parked, Corbett boarded the bus and traveled about a mile east before the bus was stopped by officers blocking the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. Another park-and-ride bus had just made it through to New Jersey. Then, no traffic was allowed in or out of Manhattan. The city had been cordoned off by the officers. Corbett boarded the outbound bus that had stopped to pick up passengers, knowing nothing except that there was a major fire Downtown."I just went back to my firehouse because I didn't know what we would be doing," said Corbett, also a volunteer firefighter in Waldwick, N.J. "Some of the firefighters knew it immediately it was a terrorist attack."

This story, relying heavily on a 2005 report issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, is meant to serve as a baseline for others that follow on this site. It is, simply, an introduction to issues investigated for this group of stories about skyscraper safety in New York City in the post-9/11 era.

In 1962, the Port of New York Authority awarded a contract to Yamasaki and Associates, a Troy, Mich.-based architectural firm led by Monoru Yamasaki, to design the World Trade Center. The centerpiece of the design would be two towers, envisioned as the flagship buildings of Lower Manhattan and, at 110 stories and about 1,350 feet tall each, the tallest buildings in the world.

In 1966, officials broke ground at the site. Construction would begin in 1968. On Dec. 6, 1968, New York City adopted new building codes that relaxed regulations related, among others, to stairwells and fireproofing, some of which had been in place since the adoption of codes after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in Greenwich Village. Locked doors, a lack of stairwells, faulty fire escapes and doors that opened in instead of out had trapped factory workers in the building, leading many to leap to their deaths below. Others died after a fire escape collapsed. In all, 146 factory workers died. The fire led to the first movement to make high-rise buildings safer, not just in New York City, but countrywide. Buildings with more than 2,500 square feet were required to have two staircases, for example, under the new codes. Another staircase was required for each additional floor of 5,000 square feet.

"Less restrictive" is how the NIST report described the 1968 codes, written largely to ease the costs of building Manhattan high-rises. Also, the loss of even a hundred square feet could mean the loss of thousands in annual rent in a high-rise office building. So developers petitioned New York City to relax the codes which they believed, according the NIST report, had not been revised to reflect technological advances. "The developers were arguing you were building bunkers and you've got way more safety than you need and its driving up costs," said Gregory Stein, a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and native of Long Island who recently studied the codes for a review published in November of last year. "They may have been right."
The answers included changing requirements for stairwells, requiring only three stairwells instead of six in New York buildings 10 stories and taller. Fire towers, stairwells with additional protection, were no longer required. Doors leading to stairwells were reduced in size to 36 inches, instead of 48 inches in the code that had been comprehensively revised last in 1938. Stairwell width requirements were 44 inches, 22 inches "per unit," unit meaning person, according to the code. Fireproofing standards were also relaxed and spray-on fireproofing was allowed. Structural columns were only required to last 3 hours instead of 4 hours, and floor framing, 2 hours instead of 3 hours.

Under normal circumstances in the city, though, the new code would not have affected the building for World Trade Center. Its plans had been submitted, and construction had begun, before the codes were adopted on Dec. 6. But the land was owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which existed outside the jurisdiction of the city and the state. Officials there, recognizing the "less restrictive" requirements in the 1968 code, told its consultants to make that the basis for the construction of the new World Trade Center.

The Twin Towers had stood for about 28 years on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. At 8:48 a.m. that morning, a Boeing 767 – American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston destined for Los Angeles –crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. When another jet - United Airlines Flight 175 with the same departure point and destination – crashed into the south tower 18 minutes later, an accident was all but ruled out. Tragedy played out for most Americans, including Corbett, on network news stations. Workers leaped from windows to escape the fire, and death by entrapment. Horrified onlookers screamed on the street below and told of the horror on network interviews. At 9:50 a.m., the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, like its feet had been swept out from under it. Networks broadcast the collapse. Thirty-nine minutes later, the north tower came down in a sea of ash that spread like a wave through Lower Manhattan, blanketing it in soot. Countless were dead, to be sure. Others were trapped. Firefighters who had entered the burning building to save those inside were among them. Ultimately, almost 3,000 people were killed, including 343 firefighters and paramedics and 60 police officers.

Corbett said it was a “few weeks” after the attacks on Sept. 11 when he understood the need for an investigation of the collapses. “With the large number of firefighter fatalities, we needed to understand how that happened,” he said.

Just days into October, 2001, Corbett was in his office at John Jay in Manhattan when he received a call from Joe Calderone, the Daily News' chief of investigations. Calderone later wrote an article titled "2 Seek Probe of Collapse," which the Daily News published on Oct. 30. Corbett and Charles Jennings, another professor at John Jay, were the first to call for a private investigation of the collapse. "There are fundamental building and fire safety issues" that need to be investigated, Corbett told the Daily News. "This cuts to the heart of the way buildings are built and how we evacuate them." Corbett later teamed with Sally Regenhard, the mother of a fallen firefighter, as a consultant in her Skyscraper Safety Campaign. The campaign, among other issues, calls for safe development of Port Authority land and more firefighter participation in authoring codes. Corbett and Regenhard helped lobby for the bill that prompted the NIST investigation.

A report issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in September of 2005 told of how the fireproofing had been knocked off of the steel foundation when the jets crashed into both buildings and the fire, fueled by thousands of gallons of jet fuel, caused the floors to sag. The report did not place blame on the codes.

The destruction caused by the planes had rendered useless five of the six stairwells in the buildings. The NIST report said that the separation of the stairwells reduced their ability to evacuate people on higher floors because of the visibility loss related to fire. Deaths were lessened only, the NIST report noted, because the buildings were only one-third to one-half full at the time of the attacks. If the towers had been full, 40,000 people would have been spread throughout both buildings, and up to 14,000 would have been killed. It would have taken three hours to evacuate everyone from the buildings, even without the stairwells destroyed. Of the about 17,400 people spread throughout the buildings at the time of the attack, 87 percent survived, according to the report. Many of the survivors interviewed by NIST investigators cited previous evacuation drills as helpful. Most who survived were below the crash sites at the time of the attacks. Most who were above the crash sites – workers, diners at Windows on the World on floors 106 and 107 of the north tower – were trapped and perished.

Many remain convinced that stricter standards for stairwells and fireproofing could have saved lives. Still others say that preventing an attack of such proportions may be impossible. David A. Lucht was the director of Fire Safety Studies at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts at the time of the attacks. He is now retired. Lucht said most buildings cannot be protected against jets, especially those bound for cross-country trips full of fuel.

"If it weren't for the building being impacted by an airplane, I can't imagine a fire that would have taken it down," Lucht said. "I can't imagine anyone designing a building that would withstand against that. You'd have to stop building them that tall.”

Jonathan Starkey is a graduate student in New York University's department of journalism. He is a member in the first class of the Reporting the Nation Program. Starkey enrolled at NYU after three years as a reporter at two weekly papers and a small daily in Delaware, where he grew up and lived with his wife, Meghan, before moving to New York. His work has appeared in Newsday.

United Nation Headquarters : Safety Hazard?

By Sooyeon Kim

New York, May 2 -- The buildings of the World Trade Center were exempt from local codes. If this had not been so, more lives may have been saved when the buildings fell down. Seven years after the tragedy, another prominent and iconic building is exempt from the same safety codes : the United Nations Headquarters.

Last year, New York City officials were concerned enough that Mayor Michael Bloomberg sent a letter to the U.N., followed by an inspection by the New York Fire Department. It took nine months for the U.N. to allow this inspection. Once inside, the city discovered more than 866 fire code violations.

Because of concerns about possible terrorist attacks, neither the city nor the U.N. would disclose specifics about the violations. Required improvements included certifying a number of U.N. security personnel as fire directors, filing updated plans to address the remaining fire-code violations, and establishing a link with the city in case of fire.

In Mayor Bloomberg's letter to the U.N., he said that if the United Nations did not make improvements by early 2008, the city would ban all public school visits to the United Nations.

The United Nations building is a distinctive complex in New York City that has served as the headquarters of the U.N. since its completion in 1950. More than 4,500 employees work in the building. Located on an 18-acre site on the east side of Manhattan, it is an international zone belonging to all member states. Because the U.N. compound is technically international territory, it was exempt from state and federal regulations on worker and environmental safety, even with respect to smoking, until last year's inspection by the NYFD.

Since then, the U.N. has announced that they would cooperate with the city to adhere to the new standards.

"We don't have to follow the U.S law here," said Werner Schmidt, public information officer at the United Nations. "It was on a voluntary basis that we let the NYFD inspect our buildings, and since then we have fixed things."

But even with the inspections and the progress made by the U.N., the building is still far from being safe, employees said, as it lacks basic fire detectors, sprinklers on many floors, and safety training. According to employees, the conditions remain bad enough to make both employees and visitors feel insecure about where they are, especially having witnessed the 9/11 tragedy.

"I saw a couple of guys walking around to install some sprinklers and stuff after the inspection last year," said one uniformed security guard, "but the building is really old, inside particularly. Even though they fixed some of the things, the changes weren't very comprehensive."

"After 9/11, I'm not sure whether there have been any physical changes, but definitely there has been a mental one, which is, I feel, concern about working in that building in particular,” said Paul Zachary, who works in the 36th floor office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “It's such an iconic building, like the WTC, but I'm not sure if it's safe enough."

He added that people are able to smoke in the building "without any problem." His tone of voice implied this is not a good thing to do - cigarettes that end up trash cans, for instance, can start fire.

According to Schmidt, the U.N. public information officer, there are three areas in which the UN is addressing the violations that were issued by the FDNY in 2007. They have installed hundreds of smoke detectors; they are training a number of safety and security officers as FDNY-certified fire directors. And finally, by July, they will complete compartmentalization of the ventilation between parts of the buildings, so that in the case of an incident, the affected area can be isolated from other areas and smoke does not get transported throughout the complex.

In addition, the U.N. recently set up a new renovation plan, the Capital Master Plan. According to a UN report, it will focus on aspects of security, environmental and safety issues. They plan to also achieve a silver rating in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design(LEED), which is focused on energy efficiency moreso than on safety. But the U.N. has struggled for years to persuade the United States and the other 191 member nations to finance this multibillion-dollar renovation project. The Capital Master Plan has finally received funding but is not scheduled for completion until the end of 2014.

But the new renovation plan has yet to comfort many people in the building.

"It has been more than five years that they talked about the renovation plan, but I have no idea what would happen if we have a fire or something right now," said Tom, a worker for UNESCO who witheld his last name. "I'm not sure we have enough fire extinguishers on my floor, or if the stairs are wide enough to let all of the people get out quickly. It seems like it's so disturbing that we don't even think about it, and it is a real problem."

Many pointed out that in addition to fixing the building, the U.N. should have more safety training for the people working in the building. Employees stated that they are unaware of any organized plan or handbook for emergency evacuations, except for an email alert.

"I don't know how the fire alarm sounds. I'm not even sure we even actually have them," said Zachary, the man who works for the UNHCR on 36th floor. "I wouldn't say I noticed anything except the installation of fire sprinklers. Every thing is done piece by piece. But maybe they haven't gotten to my floor yet. I'd love to see that."

Sooyeon Kim was born in South Korea. While she attended Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul she volunteered as a math teacher in a poor community. She was also a reporter for a South East Asian migrant worker publication. As an exchange student at Western Washington University, she studied communication and the spicy taste of Indian curry. Kim interned at the Social Service Employees Union in New York City. She is currently a graduate journalism student at New York University, focusing on urban issues.

City's Trust in Cranes Dwindles in Wake of Recent Accidents

By Kathryn Carlson

New York, April 25 -- Sissy Siganoff panicked when she heard of the March 15 crane collapse that killed seven people and injured 24 others on Manhattan's Upper East Side. She was taken back to nearly two years ago when a 14-foot piece of crane pancaked the taxi she was riding in near Union Square.

Immediately after the recent crane collapse, a rattled Siganoff phoned her attorney, Howard Raphaelson. "She called feeling great anxiety and distress that the city could allow this type of disaster to occur again," said Raphaelson. "New York City is allowing construction disasters to occur one after another. Unfortunately for the families of the deceased in this recent disaster, Ms. Siganoff's warning was not enough. As is usually the case, the only proof that the City will react to is death."

According to Raphaelson, Siganoff has developed a severe fear of construction sites and overhead sidewalk bridges, forcing her to spend much of her time confined to her home. The crushed taxi now sits in the driver's brother's garage, reminding cabbie Chrislorm Paul of his brush with an 8,000-pound metal chunk that plunged within inches of his seat.

While Paul has gone back to driving taxis, the pair are in the midst of suing three of the companies involved in the maintenance and operation of the crane -- all of which are claiming they are "not at fault" because they were in compliance with the City's Building Code regulations.

Within days of the latest accident, city officials released a report describing the collapse stating that the crane was in the process of being "jumped" -- a technique where sections are added to the structure to raise it -- when a piece of a steel collar fell off the bracing and severed a lower portion of the crane, knocking out a set of braces and toppling the entire crane from the 18th floor of an East Manhattan residential building.

As reported by The New York Times, the number of crane-related accidents across the five boroughs increased from 2006 to 2007. There were eight accidents involving fatalities or injuries in 2007, up from five in 2006, and 21 incidents not involving fatalities or injuries, up from 14. The number of safety violations at high-rise construction sites has nearly doubled over the same period, according to a City report quoted in the New York Sun.

New York indeed stands tall, stretching lengthwise with its high-rise residential buildings and skyscrapers, peppered with the towering steel cranes that allow for upward development. But after the March 15 accident, cranes were no longer simply regarded as unaffecting machines -- and Siganoff was suddenly not so alone in her fears.

The crane collapse breached the public's trust in the stability of the more than 250 cranes that graze the city's skyline cranes. This accident and others -- including a December 2007 incident when seven tons of steel fell onto Murray Street and injured an architect, and a January 2008 accident when a construction worker fell 42 stories from a hotel on Spring Street -- has especially soured the relationship between cranes, and construction workers. Just as it's no longer unusual to see passersby avoiding the stigmatized structures, some construction workers are more wary about their close existence with cranes.

A crane operator of 22 years, who requested to be identified as J.M., was present at the site when Siganoff's taxi was flattened. "After seeing that accident, it was definitely a bit shaky for me," J.M. said, as he looked up at the crane on the site where he's now working at the corner of Bowery and Great Jones. "You just have to push past it. But after accidents like that and the recent one, there are guys now who don't want to go up in the towers anymore. It's more common than you'd think."

Another worker said he's also worried. "Right now I don't trust that everything's okay all the time," said Fernando Arajjo, a roofer with Roofers' Union Local No. 8. "You have to look out for your own safety, now I look for loose posts and screws. Because of the accidents, I feel like I have to be more careful."

Dr. Alberto Goldwaser, a psychiatrist with Forensic Psychiatric Associates, said this sort of reaction is not uncommon. "Even if a person was not there to experience a particular incident, a person is left with their own mind and imagination," Goldwaser said.

J.M. said trust among crewmembers is important in his line of work, adding that there's a small circle of crane operators and that it's an industry where everyone knows everyone. "A lot of guys won't work with the person who was in charge of the site for the recent accident," he said. "I'll only work with certain people. We're the ones up there. Everyday, people go up and down. These guys have families."

While it's largely the lead engineer's responsibility to make sure the crane is secure, J.M. said the crew looks out for each other and works together to ensure that the site is safe.

Following the March 15 collapse, the Buildings Department ordered some changes to the way the City inspects and regulates tower cranes. A City inspector must now be present every time a crane is erected, jumped, or dismantled, a project engineer must submit a written protocol for each jump, and nylon slings -- the tearing of which was thought to be involved in the most recent accident -- can only be used if they are specifically recommended by the crane manufacturer.

Some within the industry are already questioning the effectiveness of the new regulations. "When it comes to the new regulations, they're just assigning people to do things that they don't really have a clue about," J.M said. "What's more is that the people who are going to be on the hurting end of the new rules are the contractors, because they have a schedule to keep. We just did a jump on 57th Street and the City was late so there were 20 guys standing around waiting."

City Councilmember Tony Avella says these regulations are too little, too late, and points to the fact that no sweeping changes were made to crane-related building codes in the wake of the rise in accidents. "It's like the agency not only doesn't keep up with new industry practices, it's also doing no enforcement of the regulations that are already on the books," said Avella, who is a member of the Buildings and Housing Committee.

Avella said he became so frustrated with Building Commissioner Patricia Lancaster's inaction that he began calling for her resignation immediately after the most recent collapse. "This is not personal, but Commissioner Lancaster doesn't have the leadership capabilities or the political willpower to make changes. Enough is enough. She has to go."

After admitting to a City Council hearing that her department had incorrectly issued permits at the March 15 collapse site, Lancaster -- who held the position since 2002 -- stepped down April 23. While neither Mayor Michael Bloomberg nor Lancaster offered details of the resignation, both expressed confidence in Lancaster's deputy, Robert LiMandri, who will serve as interim commissioner.

The City Council's Buildings and Housing Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on April 29 to look further into the cause of the recent collapse and discuss the future of the city's cranes.

Kathryn Blaze Carlson is a graduate journalism student in the Reporting the Nation program at New York University. Prior to moving to the Big Apple, Kathryn worked as a correspondence writer in Canada's Prime Minister's Office. She earned an undergraduate degree in journalism with a minor in political science at Carleton University in Ottawa Canada, in conjunction with City University in London, England. Kathryn, a National Press Foundation Fellow, grew up on the Canadian prairies and has worked for publications ranging from a national magazine to a community newspaper to an online news outlet.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Problem with High-Rise Residences

by Sarah Tressler

New York, May 2 -- Residents of high-rise apartment buildings in New York should be prepared to save themselves in case of an emergency – because high-rise residential buildings are not required to provide residents with a comprehensive evacuation procedure.

The news may come as a bit of a surprise for penthouse-apartment dwellers. If you reside on the 35th floor of a building, do you know how you’ll escape if the 34th floor is going up in flames? Many of those in such apartments do not. In fact, most are simply advised to stay in their apartment in case of a fire.

“The best thing to do is to shut your door and pray,” said one New York fire fighter, who asked to remain anonymous. “We’ll be there as soon as we can, but until then, you want to keep the fire contained. So just keep your doors shut.”

Indeed, the Office of Emergency Management Web site instructs residents to do just that.

“If you live in a high-rise residential building, and the fire is not in your apartment, stay inside rather than entering smoke-filled hallways,” the Web site says. “Keep your windows closed, especially if the fire is in the apartment below.”

For one high-rise resident, the fire didn’t become apparent until it was well underway. Liz McNamara, who lives on the 12th floor of The Crest, a 36-story high-rise apartment at 63 Wall St., was spending a sunny day indoors when she thought she heard rain. Confused, she went to the window to find clear skies. And the “rain” she was hearing?

A fire two floors above her had set off the building’s sprinkler system, which was causing a flood in the apartment above hers. Soon, the water was coming through the ceiling into her apartment as well.

“I didn’t know there was a fire in the building until water started pouring from the ceiling,” she said. When she ran into the hall to notify the building manager, she finally heard the fire alarms going off in the stair well.

Fortunately for Liz (and the other residents of The Crest on Wall Street), the building is equipped with a sprinkler system. Without the sprinklers, McNamara could have been dealing with much more serious problems than her soaking wet furniture.

“New York was around 20 years behind the model codes in terms of requiring sprinklers in residential high-rises,” said Charles Jennings, Ph.D., a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he also received a Master of Science in fire protection management. Jennings points out that the sprinkler systems basically mitigate most evacuation problems by limiting the fire’s ability to grow and spread. New York finally decreed that all high-rise residential buildings constructed need to be equipped with sprinkler systems in 1999. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) claims that, no more than two people have ever been killed as a result of a fire, excluding explosions, when the building had a fully functioning sprinkler system.

Still, said Jennings, improvements can be made.

“What residential high-rises need is public address capability, so that residents can get instructions during an emergency,” said Jennings. “This was never required.”

Jennings suggested that residential buildings should be required to be outfitted with two-way communication capability – like that which is currently required in office buildings.

A representative from the Office of Emergency Management for New York City made a simple, somewhat frightening conclusion for those who seek an evacuation procedure for high-rise residences: “There’s nothing in terms of a wide-scale one for apartment buildings – individuals need to be prepare themselves for evacuation.”

Protecting Yourself in Case of a Fire: Tips from the FDNY

1. Have a Fire Escape Plan

Have a family meeting to discuss what to do if there is a fire. Practice your plan.

2. Use Approved Window Gates

Only use approved window gates. Do not use a padlock which will prevent your escape from a fire.

3. Decide on a Meeting Place Outside of the Building

By deciding on a meeting place outside and away from the building, you will know if everyone has gotten out safely.

4. Send the Alarm

Dial 911 to report a fire. Use the local Fire Alarm Box.

5. Walk Quickly, Don't Panic

Feel the door on your way out with the back of your hand. If the door is hot, do not open. Close door behind you to slow the spread of fire.

6. Use the Stairs

Don't use the elevator. It may stop and trap you.Try to place one hand in contact with the wall. This may prevent you from getting lost.

7. Stay Low and Go

If there's smoke, escape by staying very low to the ground where air is cooler.

8. Open Window if Trapped

Open window at top to let out heat and smoke; and at the bottom to breathe.If you cannot get out, wave a sheet out the window.

9. Don't Go Back

Do not go back into a fire for anything! Your life is your MOST valuable possession.

Sarah Lynn Tressler

Sarah is a grad student at NYU's school of journalism. She has a B.A. in communications from the University of Houston, where she was a columnist for the school's paper. Her work has appeared in The Houston Chronicle and The Epoch Times.

Things Fall Apart: Workers' Safety

By Lance Steagall

New York, May 1 – A collapsed crane, a failed safety strap, a broken scaffold; we're only four months into 2008 and already 13 construction workers have died on New York City job-sites.

In spite of this string of worker deaths, pro-business groups are lobbying to gut what many deem essential labor protection: Section 240 of the New York State Labor Law. Commonly known as "the Scaffold Law," it requires that employers provide the proper safety equipment, and ensures injured workers the right to sue when that equipment is not provided.

In early April, at the intersection of Livingston and Schermerhorn - a downtown Brooklyn jobsite - worker Miguel Lagos, 32, was taking a smoke break. He wore his hardhat and protective eyeglasses on, still clipped into the harness he uses when he’s eight-stories up.

“If there is a law that can help make less-dangerous workplaces, why would anyone want to take that away?” he asked. Without skipping a beat he answered his own question – “money. It’s gotta be about the money.”

Mike Elmendorf, the New York State Director of the National Federation of Independent Business, lobbies Albany for the repeal of the Scaffold Law, and acknowledges that money is the motivating factor. But “this isn’t about trying to erode protection for workers,” he said. “it’s about fairness. It’s about an antiquated statute that’s been perverted into a cash machine for trial lawyers.”

Elmendorf and like-minded advocates believe that Section 240 holds business owners liable for any accident, regardless of the circumstances. “Under this statute,” said Elmendorf, “you could show up to work drunk, go up on a beam, dance a polka, swan dive into the ground, and it isn’t your fault.”

Paul Fernandes, the Chief of Staff at the Building and Construction Trades Council, said that isn’t the case.

“The Scaffold law simply says the contractor is absolutely responsible for providing a safe workplace,” said Fernandes. “If you remove that responsibility from the contractor, that gives them a crack that allows them to open the door to unsafe job sites. We have a hard enough time getting compliance as it is.”

The case history of Section 240 isn't so black and white.

In 2001, Sergeant v. Murphy Family Trust, Kevin Sergeant won a lawsuit for a work-site accident. As the court overview states, “plaintiff [Sergeant] stepped onto yellow insulation where a roof panel had been removed. The insulation had no underlying support, and plaintiff fell at least 21 feet to the floor below. At the emergency room, a blood test revealed that plaintiff’s blood alcohol level was .27.”

While a .27 blood alcohol level is enough to warrant a DUI arrest, it did not prevent Sergeant from winning his case. Because the proper safety devices were not provided, he was entitled to damages regardless of his intoxication.

A 2003 case, Blake v. Neighborhood Housing Services of New York, offers another perspective; a sober worker, Rupert Blake, was injured while scraping rust from a window. The jury found that all proper safety equipment had been provided in working order, and Blake had only personal negligence to blame. Neighborhood Housing Services was not held liable.

Other case law reinforces these two examples; if the proper safety equipment is provided, negligent workers have no case. If it’s not, all bets are off.

But those working to gut Section 240 are also concerned with inflated insurance prices, perhaps more so than potential lawsuits.

“The Scaffold Law is driving up the cost of liability insurance and in some cases making it impossible to even secure liability coverage [in New York City],” said Elmendorf. “By some estimates, it adds $10,000 to the cost of building a house in upstate New York.”

Ari Gross, of Gross & Co. Insurance, agreed that premiums for liability insurance can be prohibitively expensive.

“I’ve tried to get quotes,” he said, “and the replies were ‘the minimum insurance premium is $50,000’.” That is in contrast to, say, painter’s insurance, which Gross said was, "typically around $3,500."

Although Gross acknowledged that “one claim under the Scaffold Law can be disastrous for an insurance company,” he had no proof that the Scaffold Law was directly responsible for the high costs.

Paul Fernandes of the Building and Construction Trades Council has been contacting insurance providers for years, requesting that proof. He said he has yet to receive any.

“We’ve waited five to seven years for the insurance industry to provide it,” said Fernandes, “and they can’t provide a single shred.”

So far, Albany is staying out of the fight, seemingly content with leaving the law as is.

“They’d be crazy to take away that law,” said Lagos, the Brooklyn construction worker. “This city wants to build and build, and that's fine, but they've got to take care of us [the workers].”

(Click on image for a brief history of Section 240(1) of New York State Labor Law)

(Click play for a supplemental piece on workers' safety in NYC)

Lance Steagall is a student in New York University's Global and Joint Studies Program, with concentrations in Journalism and Latin American Studies. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2005, he moved to Concepcion, Chile, where he worked as an English professor at a private language institute. Since 2004 he has been actively involved in a political website he started with three other Northwestern alumni,

Tall Buildings, Skinny Stairs?

By Andrea Galyean

New York, May 2--

How wide are you?

I just the measured the widest part of me (my shoulders) and I’m 16 inches across. Add a couple inches on each side for normal movement, and I need at least 20 inches of width to walk down an office hallway or stairwell. But I’m a good bit smaller than the average Manhattan office worker. In fact, a salesman at the Wall Street location of the popular Men’s Wearhouse stores reports that the shoulders on the most commonly sold suit size in his shop (a 48) are 23 inches across when filled out by an actual person.

So if this suit-wearing average guy and I wanted to walk down a stairwell at the same time – if there was a fire in a high-rise, for instance, and we were trying to get out – we’d need 47 stairwell inches. Two people closer to his size would need 54 inches. But what if, instead of people filing downstairs side-by-side, there were also firefighters coming up? Firefighters wear big suits and carry a lot of gear, so they take up more room. How wide would that stairwell need to be?

That question is at the heart of a dispute about New York City building codes, which are being revised this year. Real estate development groups say the old code is wide enough, but some building and fire safety experts disagree.

The New York standards in place since 1938 require that most stairwells in commercial high-rises be 44 inches wide. That gives two lanes of traffic using 22 inches each. But those requirements are based on assumptions about the size and speed of occupants and are designed for partial evacuations – when only a few floors of a building are affected - and they have rarely been tested at higher capacities.

The largest building evacuation in New York City was when 15,400 people escaped from the World Trade Center (WTC) towers after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. That event demonstrated how the assumptions of the building codes translated into real-life.

John Labriola, a WTC survivor who used the stairs to escape from the 71st floor of the north tower, contributed his recollections of that day to the Smithsonian Museum. “We walked down two by two,” Labriola said in his statement. “Whenever necessary we would press ourselves into a single file line to let [injured] people get by… Around the 35th floor we started meeting a steady stream of firefighters walking up and had to press into single file again.”

Labriola also took photographs during the evacuation. One of the most famous, taken within the stairwell, shows civilians flattened against the wall as firefighters pass. The stairwells in the north tower were 44 inches wide.

Glenn Corbett, a fire sciences professor at Manhattan’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a consultant to the New York Department of Buildings committee that proposed post-WTC changes to the building code, thought the message was clear. "Out of all the issues, one of the no-brainers was the issue of stairway width," said Corbett. He refers to Labriola’s images as evidence; "If you look at those photos, with firefighters coming up and civilians coming down, the people have to turn sideways."

National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) analyzed the WTC collapse and made 30 recommendations about how high-rise buildings might be stronger, safer, and easier to get out of. NIST investigators cited Labriola’s photographs and testimony from other survivors in advising that high-rise buildings use wider stairwells. They found that WTC evacuees moved twice as slowly as had been estimated and concluded that if the towers, which were less than half full on September 11, had been fully occupied, 14,000 people would have died. “To achieve a significantly faster total evacuation at full capacity would have required increases in egress capacity – the number and width of exits and stairways,” said lead NIST investigator Dr. S. Shyam Sunder in 2005.

That was not the first such proposal. Jake Pauls, a fire safety specialist from Silver Springs, Maryland, has conducted years of research on building evacuations. He concluded in 2005 that the 44-inch minimum “was flawed, and known to be flawed a few decades ago.” Indeed, a report sponsored by NIST in 1995 said that the assumptions about how long it takes people to get out of a skyscraper were wrong. That report came from another high-profile evacuation: the escape from the WTC after it was bombed in 1993. And in 2004, a former WTC director told the 9/11 Commission that the stairwells in the towers should have been wider.

Based on his studies, Pauls proposed a new standard minimum of 56 inches. As Corbett explained, "56 inches gives you the ability for counterflow, the ability for people to pass. It's an obvious solution. Any four-year-old can figure that out."

The New York Buildings Department agreed – for a while. As late as May 2007, proposed code revisions included wider stairwells, but the version due to go into effect this year returned to the old standard. What happened? This is where the numbers change from inches and people to square footage and cash.

In New York, especially in landlocked Manhattan, the size of a building is limited by the size of the lot – and those lots are expensive. So developers try to maximize the square footage available for rent.

When the Buildings Department was drafting the new building code, it “requested NIST’s input and expertise in five specific areas,” including stair widths, according to a 2005 press release. But the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), whose members own 80 percent of North American office space, “blocked every attempt” to implement NIST’s suggestion, according to Corbett. An advocacy memo from BOMA to its members asked them to work “at the state and local level to ensure that the NIST recommendations are not used as justification for introducing unnecessary new requirements in state and local building codes.”

Representatives of BOMA and the Real Estate Board of New York volunteered on the city committee to decide egress requirements for the new building code, where they successfully fought to keep the old width rather than give up floor space for stairs.

Woody Pascal, chief of staff to Councilman Erik Martin Dilan, who chairs the City Council’s Housing and Buildings Committee, recalls the debate. “There was an issue with the stairs, yes. Basically, if the stairs were wider, the rooms would be smaller.”

The Buildings Department notes that the codes specify a minimum only and says developers can always build wider stairs, as the Durst Organization is doing with the new Bank of America building in Midtown. But few are willing to forgo potential profits in the current market, where luxury offices on Wall Street can rent for several hundred thousand dollars per square foot per year.

Frederic Schwarz, a Manhattan-based architect, has worked on a number of high-rise projects in recent years. He said developers “want to do the right things, but only to a point." He was a leader in the early efforts to redesign the WTC site and thinks a lot about building safety. But he doesn’t even try to design wider stairs for commercial clients. “Forget it,” he said, “That’s not even a conversation. You’re fighting for every inch.”

And so, the 2008 New York City Building Codes will go into effect on July 1. The required minimum width for exit stairwells in high-rises will be: 44 inches.

Andrea Galyean is a graduate journalism student at NYU. She holds a B.A. in theatre from the University of Maine and has a complicated job history. She was, most recently, the Outreach Manager for Phoenix Public Art. Her work has appeared in the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Arts. She takes the stairs.

Safety: "Forced Down People's Throats"

By Elizabeth Giegerich

New York, May 2--When a plane hit One World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Greg Trevor was staring out the window at the Statue of Liberty. The impact of the airliner that crashed 20 floors above him almost knocked him to the floor and he felt the building swaying.

Because Trevor was the senior information officer for Port Authority, news stations immediately started to call him for comments about the incident. Trevor hung up on the reporters. He had a job to do: he was thoroughly trained to deal with all emergency situations and needed to put his preparation techniques into action.

“Within a few minutes, we gathered the staff, threw files and notepads into our bags, and prepared to evacuate the floor. It began to fill with grainy smoke,” Trevor wrote in his account of the tragic event later that afternoon.

Everyone on Trevor’s floor, the 68th, got out of the World Trade Center alive that day. “I know people that were on the 65th, 72nd, 73rd, all different floors where they had to get some people stuck in elevators on their floor out first before they started to evacuate,” Trevor remembered during an interview seven years later.

“People in wheel chairs were carried down and people who were visually impaired made it out too. A lot of people knew what they needed to do and they got out safely.”

The people who “knew what they needed to do,” were those who had been trained or were led by people like Trevor who had regularly participated in training exercises, classes, and emergency drills.

One month prior to 9/11 Trevor had participated in a table top exercise – a hypothetical situation was given to him and other company appointed fire marshals on his floor, and they were to talk through each step required to ensure every employee’s safety and well being. That exercise had nothing to do with a terrorist attack, but past table top exercises he’d participated in contributed to saving Trevor and thousands of others the day the planes destroyed the twin towers.

As dull as “emergency preparedness” may sound, and as irksome a fire drill can be on a typical work day, people who are well prepared for emergencies have a better chance of making it out alive on tragic days like 9/11, or out of any unexpected dangerous situation.

Sadly, there were thousands who lost their lives on 9/11, whether they were well-trained or not, but New York City realized that regular citizens were well-trained heroes that day. Many survived because they or their leaders were prepared for something as unexpected and catastrophic as a fatal terrorist attack.

In 2004, in response to 9/11, New York State enacted a law called local law 26 (L.L.26) which requires all high rise buildings to institute Emergency Action Plans (EAPs). EAPs are detailed response plans for any type of emergency besides a fire (fire safety plans have been in effect for decades). Terrorist attacks, chemical spills, threats to air quality, and natural disasters, are a few examples of emergencies covered under L.L.26.

Of the approximately 1,800 buildings in the city that now require EAPs, about 900 have filed their plans with the New York Fire Department, but only about 370 have been accepted by the department, according to an official from the bureau of fire prevention who wished to remain anonymous.

The reasons for a rather low number of accepted EAPs vary; law makers and building owners hope that EAPs will never have to be used, so the time and money spent on their implementations is hard for some buildings to commit to. EAPs are inherently difficult to create so building owners and managers often turn to expensive outside consultants to help with plans, which raises costs. The fire official from the bureau of fire prevention said that EAPs created by outside consultants are often the best submitted to FDNY. However, the fire department has rejected many, some created by private consultants, and some created by building managers themselves. Buildings that require, but have failed to create an EAP, will eventually be issued a violation and probably be fined “a couple hundred dollars or so,” said the fire official. But the cost of creating an EAP is much higher.

“There was a huge paradigm shift after 9/11,” said Ira Tenebaum, coordinator of the public private initiative at the New York Office of Emergency Management. “It changed the way anyone looked at emergency management (and they realized) staff and personnel was more important than computers and information.”

Some building owners and managers seem to have come to this realization, but most have not; most just comply with the law and do not take any further precautions to ensure their tenants safety, according to experts in the emergency preparedness field.

“No one wants to make an investment in safety, they only want to do the minimum safety requirements, because it is not something that they make a priority of unfortunately,” said Evan Lipstein, president of Hyline Safety, an emergency preparedness consultant company. “EAPs are forced down people’s throats,” said Lipstein. “Otherwise they don’t give a rat’s ass about safety, they just care about putting money in their pockets.”

Bob Pecora of Quality Fire, an emergency consultant company, said most of the buildings that use Quality “stick to the minimum requirements, because of the cost factor.” But he added that some of the bigger properties, like Boston Properties, have asked for additional training. “I guess they are concerned for safety. They have a lot of large properties in NYC and they asked for extra seminars, extra drills.”

Depending on a building’s size, the number of people who are involved with training varies. EAP and fire safety laws require each floor to have a fire marshal who communicates with the fire (and now EAP) director, who is most familiar with the building, and often also the security guard.

The safety directors receive 20 hours of training, and three tests; two written tests and one “on-site” test. During the on-site test, the fire department goes to a site and tests the fire safety director by creating an emergency scenario in which the director will need to prove his or her knowledge of the building and the correct steps that will need to be taken to ensure the tenants’ safety. Their job is critical: They are the liaison between the fire department and the people in the building.

“I am responsible for any alarm activations, plus I’m familiar with the building, first responders are not,” said Ray Rosario, a fire safety director who has been in the business for 27 years. “I know where the stairwells are and what kind of facilities we have, how to use elevators in fire recall, how to evacuate handicapped people. But people do not take fire drills seriously,” he said. “It’s frustrating because we will have a drill and they don’t want to get up and do it.”

Fire fighter Joe Cunningham leads a fire safety director certification course twice a week for Hyline to teach future directors everything they need to know to pass the tests and discuss how best to deal with tenants who are reluctant to take orders. On one recent Thursday night his students patiently sat through a four hour class, occasionally murmuring complaints about how people fail to perform their daily duties as fire marshals, like signing in at the front desk everyday.

Despite their complaints about others who do not take safety seriously, the class of mostly building personnel were quick to proclaim how importantly they view their ability to deal with emergencies, and general safety.

“This ain’t no joke,” said Ernesto Baez, 44. “This is people’s lives.”

Elizabeth Giegerich, a graduate student at New York University, focuses on metro reporting, and has covered political, environmental and community issues. An intern at the New York Daily News, she’s also written for Voice of America and ACORN’s Social Policy Magazine.

Public Place: High Rise or High Risk?

Photographs by David Giambusso. Music by John Delore.

Gowanus development promises affordable housing, but at what cost to public health?

By David Giambusso

Brooklyn, NY, May2
--On the morning shuttle from LaGuardia to Dulles, Buddy Scotto suddenly found himself in a cold sweat. “My father was right--I never should have gotten involved in this stuff,” he thought. Sitting next to him was the new pastor at St. Mary’s on Court Street and he had just put the fear of God into his companion.

“Scotto, if you’ve got me on a wild goose chase, the whole neighborhood’s gonna hear about it,” said the young priest. Scotto was convinced now that it was all a hoax: the call from the Vice President, the meeting at the White House, and the money for the sewage plant.

“Between the gate of the White House and getting inside the Oval Office, I honestly don’t remember a thing,” said Scotto. By the time he was on the shuttle back to New York though, he had a $458 million guarantee to build the Red Hook Sewage Treatment Plant. “All I had to do was go to a place called Kansas City, Missouri and vote for Gerald Ford,” Scotto said.

For the first time in 200 years, the Gowanus Canal was going to start getting cleaned up. Since then, Scotto has spent the better part of his life making deals and cajoling politicians to dredge the Gowanus and make it livable. As he approaches his 80th birthday, his dream seems to be on the verge of fruition. Now his greatest obstacle lies 120 feet below ground.

The Gowanus Canal is perhaps one of the most polluted waterways in the United States. From the onset of the industrial revolution it has fallen victim to the most damaging and pervasive ecological abuses of the modern age. Independent scientific studies estimate that in certain sites, such as the soon-to-be-developed Public Place, carcinogenic toxins are embedded deep into the soil and groundwater, some plumes extending 100 feet below ground.

While most stakeholders agree there must be remediation and a drive to refashion the canal, there is deep disagreement about how that remediation, or cleanup is executed. The state and city, in partnership with local developers, plan to have housing, commercial space, and park land ready for habitation within three to four years. Others argue that such haste will have grave consequences.

The Politics of Pollution

Scotto was a lifelong Democrat. In the late sixties he helped found the Independent Neighborhood Democrats in Carroll Gardens. He got involved to help the neighborhood, but soon found himself getting too embroiled in local politics. His friends were pushing him to run for Congress. His father warned him not to get involved and he thought he could put a stop to it by registering as a Republican. When he told the boys at IND they were indignant. “You’re staying in this club even if you are a goddamn Republican!” Scotto recalls them saying.

While Scotto dodged the bullet of a Congressional run, soon enough the local Republicans started coming around and asking him to be a delegate at the Republican National Convention in 1976. They convinced him to run on the promise that his alternate could go if he was elected. Sure enough, he was voted in by a healthy margin. As planned, he told his alternate to head to Kansas City and washed his hands of the whole affair.

The phone rang one day and an operator on the other end said, “Salvatore Scotto, This is the White House. I have the Vice President for you.” Scotto was taken aback but tried to compose himself. Nelson Rockefeller was asking why Scotto wasn’t giving his full-throated support to President Ford. The whole New York delegation was rumored to be supporting Ronald Reagan and even though Rockefeller wasn’t running, it was an embarrassment for the former New York governor.

Scotto was close to admitting that he wasn’t really a Republican when he recognized his chance. He began reciting a laundry list of problems facing his neighborhood. Chief among them were the putrid conditions at the Gowanus Canal.

For over a century the Gowanus has acted as an industrial and residential sewer, suffering the runoff of gas plants, tanneries, machine shops, and factories as well as 14 sewage outlets. The waterway, which connects Upper New York Bay to the neighborhoods of Red Hook, South Brooklyn, and Park Slope, runs along a flood basin of toxicity. Several days after his meeting at the White House, Scotto would return with funding to start the Red Hook Sewage Treatment plant.

A year later, Scotto secured several million more to re-activate the flushing tunnel in the Gowanus after it had been shut down by area manufacturers who found it inconvenient for barge transportation. As part of that deal, he had won over a half a million in seed money for the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation (GCCDC), a group of local interests dedicated to cleaning up the canal, developing affordable housing, and ridding the basin of the toxic polluters responsible for decades of pollution.

With plans for affordable housing, commercial units, and green spaces currently backed by the city, and with remediation underway at sites all along the canal, it would seem Scotto’s lifelong dream is finally coming true. Yet to some in the neighborhoods and in the scientific community here, there is a dark underbelly to this so-called progress.

While it has been thirty years since cleanup began on the Gowanus, many feel it has been largely insufficient and in order to make the area safe again, it will take a much bigger commitment on the part of the city and state. In the meantime, some say the consequences of building over this deeply embedded toxicity may be dire to current and future residents.

Trouble Below

“The level of contamination at Public Place Site seems very extensive,” said Patricia Culligan, professor of Civil Engineering at Columbia University and co-author of “Eco-Gowanus: Urban Remediation by Design.” The book, a project of professors and graduate students at Columbia University was put together with the help of community members such as Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus (FROGG) and Brooklyn Community Board Six.

Public Place, an 11 acre, state-owned parcel was formerly the site of a manufactured gas plant or MGP. It was seized by the state after being condemned for toxicity and is now part of the Brownfield Cleanup Program, a state initiative enacted in 2003 to make contaminated areas more viable for redevelopment.

The program offers tax breaks to development companies that are willing to take on the cost of remediation and build new housing on lands once thought to be uninhabitable. State taxpayers essentially foot the bill for development discounts in exchange for the promise of safe remediation.

The state has turned Public Place over to the Hudson Companies in partnership with Scotto’s GCCDC who recently won the bid to develop 774 units of mixed-income housing, commercial space, and community-group space on the site.

Unlike other brownfields, the cost of cleanup is being incurred largely by National Grid, a private international energy company that recently purchased Keyspan. Keyspan is the inheritor of the Brooklyn Union Gas Company, who owned the original MGP and is responsible for much of the site’s toxicity. According to a Volunteer Agreement signed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Keyspan, once Keyspan has met certain cleanup obligations on the site, it is free from any liability for future incidents that may arise due to contamination.

According to Marlene Donnelly, a representative of FROGG, Hudson Companies will still receive nearly 25 percent of its development costs back in tax rebates, despite not spending any money on remediation. Hudson Companies representative Alan Bell was recently quoted in the Brooklyn Paper saying, “We tend to shy away from sites that have been contaminated in some severe way” but adding that “Public Place has a long history and the city is really committed to getting this cleaned up.”

Community members and scientists close to the project are questioning the level of that commitment. Ludger Balan heads the Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy, a group that provides conservation support, environmental stewardship and public environmental education programs on the Gowanus Canal.

According to Balan, the extent of cleanup currently proposed, falls far short of what is necessary for public health. “Any development plan that does not consider a clean-up of the Gowanus Canal first is a ploy and marketing scheme driven by a city highly dependent on real estate sales,” says Balan. He and other scientists maintain that the Gowanus needs to be completely dredged and the surrounding wetlands restored before anyone can conceive of living along the canal.

The city and state have said the site will be livable in four to six years, but remediation experts don’t see how that is possible. According to data provided by the Urban Divers, there are more than 12 points where raw, untreated sewage is discharged into the Canal after every rainfall, translating into millions of gallons of combined sewage overflow or CSO. This contributes to high levels of pathogens--disease-causing bacteria--in the Gowanus Canal. Says Balan, “The entire uplands of the Gowanus Canal is severely contaminated. Dilapidated bulkheads throughout the Gowanus Canal continuously contribute to the migration of dioxins to and from land and water and vice versa.”

These assertions are consistent with the findings of Culligan and her team, who have studied the toxicity of MGP sites. They estimate that chemical deposits extend roughly 120 feet beneath the surface and could seep out into the canal as well as escape in plumes of noxious vapors. The nature of these deposits varies as toxins from other sites have seeped into the groundwater as well.

According to a recent study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, some of the more dangerous elements at Public Place site are Benzene, Xylene (BTEX), and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH’s) some of which are known to cause lung, stomach, and skin cancer as well as leukemia. Another older survey found these elements present in the groundwater at Public Place at levels thousands of times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency has deemed safe for drinking water.

While none of the groundwater at Gowanus will be used for drinking, there are other ways in which these toxins can cause harm. “There has to be a pathway that allows you to come into contact with the contamination, and you can inhale airborne vapors so that’s one pathway.” Another pathway is skin contact should the elements appear in the park spaces, basement floods, or the canal itself. According to the Columbia study, “Any dose of Benzene can lead to illness.”

As Balan points out, exposure to these elements is not what most people likely bargain for in buying or renting a new home. “Would you want barges and trucks carting stinky and heavily contaminated sediment passing beneath your million dollar condo's window and front door?” asks Balan, saying also, “As a consequence, average citizens rich and poor [are] heavily and consistently lured to pay highest value to live on contaminated land, contaminated water and bad air quality, on a high risk flood zone waterfront. A small minority of developers get rich and thousands of families are left to hold a dirty bag, with a high mortgage and immense debts.”

Cleanup or ‘remediation’ of the site would involve decades of constant soil and water cleansing according to “Eco Gowanus”, the type that is not often politically or financially feasible, especially in a faltering economy. “Historically the remediation of these brownfield sites has not been as thorough as the remediation that we’re proposing here,” Culligan says.

The State’s Response

Yet plans to cleanup Public Place and build residential and commercial housing proceed unabated. Gardiner Cross, an engineer with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation told Community Board 6 in January that, “It would be impossible to dig out the contaminants in their entirety,” but that “The cleanup will be sufficient to support virtually any development.”

Amen Omorugbe is a project manager for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and is currently overseeing cleanup at the Public Place site. While National Grid is saddled with all of the cleanup responsibilities, the work is carried out by private contractors such as GEI Consultants, who are paid by National Grid and overseen by DEC.

According to studies conducted by the DEC, the contamination at Public Place is consistent with that of other MGP sites in that there are high levels of BTEX and PAH’s as mentioned in “Eco-Gowanus”.

Omorugbe concedes that these contaminants are well below grade (or surface level), some as deep as 125 ft. “We recognize that you can’t treat that,” says Omorugbe. Instead, current plans call for removing roughly ten feet of topsoil, shipping it out on trucks to sites out of state where it will be treated. New soil will be carted in and laid over a barrier that is designed to prevent contaminants from seeping up into the new dirt. A 70 ft barrier will also be vertically introduced around the site barriers in an attempt to stop surrounding contaminants from seeping through.

Omorugbe was uncertain where the soil will be shipped, but believes it will be sent to processing plants in New Jersey or Pennsylvania. He was also unable to provide details of the exact decontamination process for the soil or the trucks that will be transporting it, raising questions of the public health risks to the communities where the toxic fill will be dumped.

This is similar to a “cap and pave” strategy used just a few feet down the canal where a new Lowe’s mega-store was built. Culligan and others feel this method of remediation limits the use of the land.

“The cap and pave strategy is basically turning brownfields into car parking lots. It was locking the contamination in,” says Culligan. The method also calls for constant monitoring of the site or evidence of leaking toxins. Culligan worried that this was not occurring, “We were somewhat concerned when we spoke to the stake holders that they weren’t aware of what monitoring was going on at that site.”

The concern of scientists and engineers not on the state payroll is that the underground toxins are far too volatile to be simply covered up with a layer of concrete. Cleansing 10 feet of soil does little to address the deep pools of BTEX, Coal Tar and sludge, that have seeped into the pools of ground water over a hundred feet below.

Culligan and the team at Columbia propose a permanent revolution of sorts in the way the Gowanus Canal is being treated. "Eco-Gowanus" proposes several bold ideas for addressing the contamination, all of them centered around long term remediation. While residential housing and cultural areas remain part of the drive, the Columbia team would also like to see instituted a new industry of decontamination, renewal, and education.

"The message that we’re trying to give is that the land has greater potential if we spend more time remediating it," said Culligan, "The remediation itself uncovers an urban archeology."

What The Future Holds

As illustrated in “Eco-Gowanus,” these toxins form plumes or pools that are well below the surface of the site as well as the bottom of the canal. If un-addressed they will continually threaten to escape into the water itself, the surrounding soil or into the air in the form of noxious clouds.

Moreover, even if Public Place was fully cleansed, it would still not address the surrounding sites that are equally volatile. “I think what the community deserves is a full understanding of the contamination that exists not just at this site but at neighboring sites,” said Culligan, “Just cleaning up site by site makes no sense--from an engineering perspective or an economic perspective--because the contamination doesn’t care about site boundaries.”

Community Board meetings are marked with discord. Many stakeholders as well as area politicians find themselves conflicted over the benefits of Gowanus development. Scotto and others in the GCCDC have been fighting for a renewed interest in the Gowanus for decades and see this as a golden opportunity. Others such as Community Board 6 members, FROGG, and The Urban Divers are deeply reticent. While the current cleanup of Public Place is the responsibility of National Grid, once the minimal requirements of the DEC are met, National Grid has no further liability. Future lawsuits will be paid out by New York State taxpayers.

Balan, in particular, foresees ominous consequences and said, “Until solutions for remediation of these issues take a serious lead in the dialogue of developing the Gowanus Canal, I fear the drive of the real estate interest will lead us to see another Love Canal. It appears that this is currently in the making.”

David Giambusso is a master's candidate in NYU's Reporting the Nation program and has worked as a freelance journalist for several years, covering local news in New York City and Westchester. He currently splits his time between journalism and music, performing and recording with the rock and roll sensation, Ann Courtney & The Late Bloomers. He would like to thank Andrew Garib for his extraordinary intellect, without which none of this would be possible.

Over and Out

By Molly Stark Dean
New York, May 2 - On September 11, 2001, 343 firefighters and paramedics were killed in the World Trade Center disaster. Innovation since the terrorist attack has helped firefighters advance their techniques. Yet somehow this new technology is not always making it to the Fire Department of New York City (FDNY).

The FDNY’s radios have not changed since September 11. “Firefighter radios still are not able to transmit messages in high-rise buildings, subways, and tunnels,” retired FDNY Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn wrote in his report titled, Three Years Later: What has Changed Since 9/11. “Battalion chiefs may carry portable booster radios (each weighing 22 pounds) that enhance communications between the fire ground commanders and firefighters’ portable radios,” Dunn wrote, “This so-called ‘quick fix’ is nowhere near complying with the recommendation of the McKinsey and Co. consulting report.”

The McKinsey report, "Increasing FDNY’s Preparedness," detailed New York City building owners’ responsibility by recommending that they “install and maintain permanent equipment (an in-building repeater) that picks up and amplifies walkie-talkie signals.”

Retired FDNY Deputy Chief Jim Riches recalls his experience with Motorola radios on September 11, 2001. “Motorola radios were ineffective on 9/11,” Riches said, “and many firefighters in the north tower never heard the call to evacuate after the south tower had collapsed. They had two evacuation calls one full hour and one half hour before the north tower collapsed.” Newly retired Riches was a firefighter for 30 years.

Motorola company officials stood by their radios and blamed the problem on the overloaded communications network on September 11, 2001. “If you have 400 or 500 people trying to talk at once, it’s a wonder anyone heard the transmissions,” said John McFadden, a company spokesman.

In March 2001, Motorola sold FDNY radios with a no bid contract. “Motorola is a very sore subject,” NYPD firefighter William G. Dennis said, “I remember the day the FDNY gave us the new Motorola radios. We were never trained on them.” Dennis went on to say that with the FDNY’s old radios, “as soon as you pushed the button your transmission would start immediately. These new radios had some sort of repeater in them so you had to wait two seconds before you could transmit. Messages were being cut short.” Dennis’ friend, firefighter Luke Healy, became lost in the basement of a house fire in Richmond Hill Queens. This was the reason why the radios were taken out of service after just one day. “He gave a mayday and not one of the units in the fire building heard it,” Dennis said, “Yet units responding from a mile away heard it on their radios. They issued the new radios to us without field testing them.”

Moreover, “Motorola got this as a no bid contract,” Dennis said. This means that there was no competition for Motorola’s agreement with the FDNY. “The then fire commissioner Thomas Von Essen was given a loan by Motorola in excess of $60,000,” Dennis said.

“Motorola and Commissioner Tom Von Essen of the FDNY made a critical mistake and cost many firefighters their lives at the World Trade Center,” FDNY firefighter Steven Mormino said, “The new radios was released to the field units without being tested and failed. Many Firefighters who were killed at the World Trade Center never heard the order to withdraw due to a lack of repeaters. This was known before the radios were issued but were pushed into service.” Mormino has been a career FDNY firefighter for 20 years.

FDNY firefighter Vincent Anzelone is baffled by what he feels is Motorola’s incompetence. “They do try to innovate for us,” Anzelone said, “but it is hard to believe we can have cell phones and GPS systems with pinpoint accuracy and clarity and all we get is static.” Anzelone will retire this year due to respiratory illness from 9/11. By January 2002, 300 firefighters went on leave for repertory problems. From January 2001 to July 2001, there were 274 FDNY retirements; compared to 661 FDNY retirements from January 2002 to July 2002.

Motorola’s digital radios failed within one week of operation. The 20-year-old radios were then redistributed to the firefighters which were used on September 11 and failed the fire fighters. “The city of New York and Motorola have had a very friendly and questionable relationship,” Riches said, “No contract, no field test and lies that other cities, Boston and Chicago, had ordered them and used them.”

Motorola’s relationship with the New York City government angers some firefighters. Firefighter Anzelone said that when it comes to the New York City government, “it is all about cost. The government cares nothing about human life.”

Retired FDNY firefighter John T. Vigiano blames the government over the company. “Remember, the city always set the standard and always went with the low bid,” Vigiano said, “I am sure if the city paid more, they would have gotten a better radio.”

Retired firefighter Nicholas C. Gaudiosi said the “government can provide the funds to research new technology and purchase equipment. Firefighters should decide what is necessary to do the job.” Gaudiosi is Vice President Director of Life Safety at Lehman Brothers global investment bank and former FDNY firefighter who retired in 2003 as Captain of Ladder 7.

The government “sometimes red tape at city level will lead to bad purchases,” Riches said.

While the issue of radios has continued to simmer among firefighters, other innovations have been accomplished. After September 11, 2001, there have been advances in firefighter safety technology include. Personal safety harnesses and communications units have advanced since 9/11, according to Anzelone. For second alarm fires or more, according to Anzelone, require better radios to hear fellow firefighters and a television to see inside the building. Safety Director Gaudiosi said that since 9/11 there has been “more accountability” and “a better plan of action to reduce the number of men directly involved, moving the command outside the immediate impact area.”

High-rise fires have their own challenges that must be met with new tools to conquer them. “High-rise fires are very hot and difficult fires,” Riches said, “Water is a necessity, blankets, thermal, over windows to prevent wind driven fire.” Riches also stressed the need for “radios to communicate any pertinent information” and “fans to pressurize stairs.”

“High rise fires have been around for years, and the FDNY has been battling them the entire time, usually with success,” Vigiano, “The entire world is nearly plastic and in an office building is nearly everything has a plastic base. Polymers break down and melt, giving off noxious fumes when at a certain temperature ignite into a fire ball.” Vigiano was a firefighter for 36 years.

Lehman Brothers Director of Life Safety Gaudiosi said other tools needed in a high-rise fire are thermal imaging, cameras, search ropes, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), personal removal device, and radios with a repeater system, SCBA, and rabbit tool. Anzelone also outlined the need for quality radios as well as “knowledge of the building, and working standpipes.”

Firefighter Mormino emphasizes the importance of “larger SCBA breathing bottles, improved radio communications, thermal imaging cameras, Haz Mat suits, decontamination trailersRadio repeaters handi talkie recorders” for FDNY firefighters.

“Firefighters adjust to anything,” Gaudiosi said.

Riches agrees with Gaudiosi. “Firefighters are more than willing to adapt to any new technology.”Not all firefighters believe that the transition is that effortless. FDNY firefighter Anzelone said the transition to new technology is going “slowly. We like to test things out before we go in to battle with them.”

“From my own experience and listening to firefighters,” retired firefighter Vigiano said, “I do not think this generation is adequately adjusting to some of the innovations that were introduced prior to 9/11.”

FDNY firefighter Mormino said that firefighters adapt to new technology “very well as long as there is sufficient training.”

Some firefighters do not see any progress being made. “Fires in high rise buildings are dangerous,” retired Chief Riches said, “Studies are being conducted to help in fire safety in these buildings, but we are still equally in danger before 9/11 and thereafter.”

Anzelone said there are no positive changes and the “radios still suck.”

Radios are one of the most important devices a firefighter carries with him. Retired Captain Gaudiosi said radios are “Everything, communication of changing situation so that firefighters can adjust strategy and tactics, request for help, etcetera.”

“Radio communication is critical,” Riches concurs with Gaudiosi, “Evacuation orders must be heard, changing situations, location of civilians, wind changes, and ventilation, both planned and unplanned. An order which is not heard can be fatal.”

“Radios are one of the best tools a firefighter has,” Dennis said. Dennis was a firefighter who retired five days before September 11, 2001. “Communication is a major factor in fighting fires,” Dennis said, “I can not tell you how many times over my 20-year career that I have been told to evacuate a building. When you are given an order, you follow it. That’s the way we are trained. You are inside and do not see what the chief sees. There could be something like a gas tank or propane leak or any number of dangers that have to be relayed to one another.”

Radios are so useful that each firefighter should carry one. “I worked in a Rescue Company and each man carried a radio before it was allowed,” Vigiano said, “and when I was promoted to Captain, I made sure each man carried a radio in my ladder company before it was allowed. To me, radios were the most significant tool we had in my career.”

As for lessons people should learn from September 11, 2001, “the best recipe,” former Chief Riches said to prevent tragedy, “is fire drills and planning so that everyone knows what the whistles and orders mean and how to get out.”

Top Ten Innovations that Have Helped Fire Fighters in High-Rise Buildings since September 11, 2001

from recently retired FDNY Deputy Chief Jim Riches

1. Thermal imaging cameras
2. Blankets to cover windows and prevent wind driving into fire apartment
3. Tower ladders to deliver water on fire up to 10 stories
4. Haligan tool to force open doors
5. Bunker gear to protect firefighter from burns
6. Hurst tool for extrication at car accidents
7. Portable repeater to boost radio signals at high rise
8. Sprinklers in buildings to extinguish fires before they escalate
9. Portable radios for firefighters to communicate with each other
10. SCBA mask, which is the air tank on masks that helps firefighters breathe

Molly Stark Dean is a Reporting the Nation major at New York University. She attended Suffolk University where she received a Bachelor of Science in Communications and minored in Creative Writing and Psychology. She interned at WGBH-TV, WNYT-TV, WHDH-TV, and ABC News Nightline.

Liability or the Deepest Pocket- Will Post 9/11 Suits Help Push Reform?

By Guelda Voien

New York, May 2--Lawsuits are the American way. Even as we vilify them, we can thank lawsuits for seatbelts, fire escapes, even mandatory heating in our apartments.

In the wake of 9/11, government contractors, airlines, the city of New York, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Port Authority, the Federal Aviation Administration and the government of Saudi Arabia have all been litigants in claims brought by victims, their families, and workers. Of the original 95 lawsuits on behalf of 96 victims, 53 cases were settled quickly. Others, including the large class-action suits by first responders and the residents of lower Manhattan against the city and Port Authority, remain unresolved.

These lawsuits claim to be motivated by a desire to help the public gain better access to pertinent information. But, do plaintiffs in 9/11 cases just want their share of large government payouts? Or, will the logic of the law help us carve out where the oversights, assumptions and disorganization that allowed mishandling to occur were located, and thus, help us institute reforms?

For Joel Kupferman, of the Environmental Law and Justice Project, the goal of the suits is noble, not predatory. “I don’t want the head of the EPA lying to us. I don’t want people promoted for leaving a disaster like this. I want medical monitoring and proper clean up for people [who are at risk for dust inhalation,]” he says.

On March 27th, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld an earlier decision by the Federal District Court in Manhattan, which will allow one major case against the city, one that has more than 4,000 plaintiffs, to go forward. The opinion stated that the purpose of the suit was to determine if the city was immune from prosecution because 9/11 was an extraordinary circumstance, and that it would have to determine that on a case by case basis, meaning the case could easily go on for years. On April 22nd, the former head of the EPA was found not personally liable for the “conscience-shocking” assurances she gave to New York City residents, entreating them to return to homes and schools covered in toxic dust.

But Kupferman says toxic tort cases, while vitally important to improving safety, are ineffective in spurring reform because they often carry a gag order. This prevents others whom the toxins might affect from learning about the situation and about the legal and environmental remedies available to them. Both the amount of the payout and the exact details of the case are often kept secret as a condition of settlement.

The city has admitted that the World Trade Center’s destruction sent aloft dust that has made people sick. Last May, Mayor Bloomberg asked that the compensation fund for 9/11 victims be re-opened to allow first responders to be compensated for their suffering caused by the toxic dust that the towers’ demolition spewed into the air. He has not said that residents of lower Manhattan should be compensated. But for the plaintiffs in Kupferman’s case, change, not recompense, is the primary goal. The court that matters most to them is that of public opinion, as the issue of toxic dust has not been widely discussed since the 2006 death of detective James Zadroga, whose status as a first responder was so scrutinized that people now seem reticent to state publicly that their health concerns are directly related to 9/11.

The Environmental Justice Project has launched a civil suit against the EPA, stating that the Fifth Amendment rights of their clients to be free from bodily harm were violated when the government failed to alert residents to the risks of returning to work, school and residence in lower Manhattan. The suit seeks unspecified damages. It differs from a toxic tort case in that it could also result in an injunction that requires some action on the part of the city, rather than a settlement. Kupferman says money is incidental. The real hope is that Christine Todd Whitman, head of the EPA during the disaster, will testify about the mistakes that were made. The litigants in this suit are interested in the city and various federal agencies’ responsibility for the children who were allowed to go back to school two months after the attacks, when the dust had barely settled, and for the city inspectors who visited sites all over downtown without face masks because the city was afraid of causing alarm.

Not everyone feels that residents have strong claims against the city, let alone the federal government, for failing to ensure their safety. The question of whom, if anyone, to sue when a falling building poisons you with asbestos, is difficult to parse. Some think the city, Port Authority, and EPA are not responsible, that common sense about the risks involved ought to have prevailed.

“It’s not as though [they] got black lung,” says Adam McClelland, who lived in Soho during the attacks, and went to the World Trade Center site as the towers fell to hand out coffee to firefighters for days. “It’s just that it was an extraordinary circumstance, and it’s gotten a lot of attention,” he says. McClelland does not recall having any respiratory problems after the attack, but admits that “everyone is different, and we still don’t know what will happen in 15 years.”

Kupferman felt federal jurisdiction was the easiest to go after, and so his suit focuses on the EPA, but, as he says, “there are 3 or 4 different layers of government here” that one could construe as responsible for your safety in an event such as 9/11. “You would think that would help you be safer,” says Kupferman, “but it was the opposite.”

However, are government entities just the deepest pocket in a web of liability surrounding an unprecedented tragedy? Kupferman believes that laziness, incompetence and greed were the real issues, and litigation is the only way to force government to behave differently. He says that internal correspondence at city government shows that economic interests pushed the re-opening of lower Manhattan, and that warnings from the EPA were ignored by the city. He also alleges that hired experts, such as doctors and engineers, were told to not to find the area dangerous by city officials, who hoped to mitigate the disaster’s impact on the city’s economy.

Carrie Crow worked in lower Manhattan shortly after 9/11 and could have been party to a suit, though she is not. “I felt like I was pressured, there was this patriotic campaign that said you should show up to work, you should go out and buy things, you should take your kids to school and resume life as normal,” she says, but now she thinks this was not the best course of action. “I think the EPA and the city, they gave out totally incorrect information, it was a huge mistake. They let their constituencies down,” Crow says. She felt she was assured that it was safe to go to work, and now knows it may affect her respiratory health later in life. “The city lied,” Crow says.

Some questions remain as to the good faith of some post-9/11 litigants, however. Paul DiNapoli, co-counsel in the first-responders’ case, has recently come under scrutiny because of alleged abuse of settlement funds dispersed after he won his first big class-action suit- the “fen-fen” diet pill case. Although the actual numbers are protected by gag order, many believe that suit resulted in a payout of over $1 billion. DiNapoli has said publicly that he wants settlements for his clients in the 9/11 case. Napoli, Bern, and Ripka LLP, his firm, says they need to settle well in order to break even because they have already spent millions on expensive medical research for their 9/11 case.

Michael Eatroff worked on a first responders’ case against the city and the Port Authority. He says his firm “represented different workers from different agencies,” in a class action against the city “for all emergency workers who worked at the site after it fell and within the first two years.” During three and four hour depositions Eatroff saw workers thoroughly questioned about physical symptoms, mental and emotional problems, and respiratory problems. “City attorneys wanted to show that there were other causes of our clients’ respiratory problems,” said Eatroff. His clients claim not only that they suffer from chronic respiratory problems, but that the problems were caused by asbestos, not the mere dust that the city said was, in Rudy Giuliani’s exact words, “just the World Trade Center cough.”

Research physicians, such as Robin Herbert, of Mount Sinai Medical Center, have said that asbestos, dust and fiberglass could still have been an issue for as long as two years in lower Manhattan. Some first responders “continue to have persistent upper and lower respiratory symptomatology — coughs and sinus problems,” Herbert said in an NBC interview in 2003.

And even if all the safety regulations during clean up had been strictly followed, the levels of asbestos and other toxins might still have been too high to be safe or legal, especially for children. However, the private contractors hired to dispose of 9/11 debris did not always follow the regulations, as the contractors themselves have admitted. Representatives of the company would eventually state at a public meeting that they would have needed to have “workers' mothers on site to admonish them to [effectively] comply,” with the regulations the city stipulated.

Students at Stuyvesant High School, located across the street from the World Trade Center, were allowed to return to school in October, although studies have shown that area was still replete with toxins. Independent testing has shown that the material that trucks removing 9/11 debris carried contained levels of asbestos and fiberglass that were unlawful to transport through public streets, according to Kupferman. Responsibility for the procedure is shared by Port Authority, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the City and the EPA.

“The real problem with port authority is that they are being lax right now during reconstruction,” says Kupferman. The Port Authority and LMDC are unique entities: hybrids of the public and private, staffed and funded by both government and private enterprise. This causes unique jurisdictional conflicts and as well as a murky landscape of motives. It is not unreasonable to assume that business interests would be part of the decision-making for the LMDC. Activist Sally Regenhard, of the Skyscraper Safety Coalition, says the clean-up was “a massive failure at the federal, city, state and definitely the Port-Authority level.” “It all comes down to money,” says Regenhard.

All that was decided in the most recent legal episode was that in fact the city’s immunity would have to be decided on a case-by-case basis. How other entities will fare is left to be seen. On Wednesday April 30th, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was found liable for damages incurred in the 1993 World Trade Center attacks, according to The New York Times.

Detective James Zadroga died in 2006 from respiratory failure linked to his work at the World Trade Center site. Mention of him still incites immediate controversy. Many people say it cannot be proven that he died from 9/11 dust, and even if he did, questions remain as to whether certain equipment would necessarily have prevented his death. But are people skeptical because they think his family is in search of the deepest pocket? Or because they are afraid to acknowledge how massive a public safety failure post-9/11 clean up may have been?
Kupferman says the firemen he represents only wanted one thing. “They wanted someone to tell them ‘Don’t wash your clothes with your kids’ clothes,” he says. “What cuts across the left and the right is that people want the government to give the correct information.”

Guelda Voien is a graduate student in journalism at New York University, specializing in reporting on national issues. She has worked as a research associate for a commercial real estate brokerage, as a creative assistant for an Emmy-award winning screenwriter and has interned for the American Civil Liberties Union.