Memos Called for Safety Help at N.Y. Bank Tower Before Fatal Fire

By | September 28, 2007

In memos written months before a fire at a condemned ground zero skyscraper killed two firefighters, a former construction chief urged the state owners to add staff and funding to the project to ensure it was safe.

The state agency that owns the former Deutsche Bank tower countered Wednesday that it added three new full-time staffers to the site this year and said that it never got the latest memo by Charles Maikish, then the executive director of the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center.

Several investigations into the Aug. 18 blaze at the building have exposed a litany of safety violations and accidents at the toxic tower and raised questions about which agency in the government-run project is most responsible for the failures.

Maikish, who ran the construction agency that was overseeing the tower’s dismantling since mid-2006, wrote in a May 25 memo that the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which owns the building, needed to put more staff on the project. The 41-story tower has been dismantled until the 26th floor, while more work is ongoing to remove toxic debris left there by the Sept. 11, 2001, collapse of the World Trade center’s south tower.

“We have been repeatedly denied resources,” Maikish wrote to Avi Schick, the LMDC’s chairman.

He said of the work to dismantle the building, “we also made it very clear that we could not perform it safely or efficiently without being provided the necessary resources.”

Maikish included a copy of a letter that he said he drafted in December to the LMDC but never sent at the request of then-Gov. George Pataki’s office. It expressed similar concerns about staff and funding for the project. A Maikish spokesman said the letter wasn’t sent because Maikish believed after talking with Pataki’s office that more funding would soon be available from the administration of Pataki’s successor, Eliot Spitzer.

Excerpts of the memos appeared in Wednesday editions of the New York Post.

Rebuilding officials and Maikish’s spokesman, Ken Frydman, issued conflicting statements Wednesday about who knew of the letter and who received it.

Frydman said Wednesday that the letter was hand-delivered on May 25 to Schick, LMDC President David Emil, Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff and two other LMDC board members. And he said that Bob Harvey, who was Maikish’s deputy in May and now heads the command center, “helped to prepare and review the memo” and put together a chart of work assignments for the project that was attached to it.

LMDC spokesman Errol Cockfield said Wednesday of the memo that no LMDC officials or board members “have any record or recollection of having received it.”

Harvey said Wednesday, “I wasn’t aware of the memo or it going out, quite frankly.”

The command center, created in 2004 by the governor and the mayor to manage billions of dollars of ongoing construction at the trade center site and downtown Manhattan, took a greater role in the building once heavier work, involving hundreds of construction workers, began last year.

At that time, the LMDC announced it was going out of business and reduced its staff, including two managers who had been on the site of the contaminated skyscraper every day.

The site has been plagued with safety violations and accidents this year. Maikish’s memo was written two weeks after a sprinkler pipe plummeted off the building and into a nearby firehouse.

Harvey, who took over Maikish’s job in July, said on Wednesday that in February four people, including a site safety manager, were added to the staff of URS, a contractor working for the owner, to oversee the project more thoroughly.

“I felt we needed more coverage,” he said.

An engineer was recently recruited from another downtown building agency to work on site for the LMDC, replacing the two project managers who left last year, Harvey said.

Harvey said that no one from the construction command center has maintained a daily presence at the site.

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