Ground Zero fire, deaths, spur questions

NEW YORK — Six years after the 9/11 attack, the fog of profiteering, corruption and secrecy continues to whirl around the demolition and reconstruction of the World Trade Center site.

The latest deaths in the ongoing tragedy were those of two firefighters killed fighting a fire in the adjacent Deutsche Bank building in August this year. Even as those deaths were being memorialized, two more firefighters were injured in a construction accident at the site. The building was so badly contaminated and damaged on Sept. 11, 2001, that both decontamination and demolition are needed.

A cigarette butt left by construction workers ignited debris causing the deadly fire. Fire standpipes had apparently been cut or damaged by subcontractors so water didn’t flow to the fire hoses.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has tried to blame the deaths on three high-ranking fire department officers who were said to have failed to have the building inspected or develop a plan for fighting a fire at the site. Firefighters have said they were discouraged from doing proper fire safety inspections by the city and demolition contractors.

Another factor contributing to the tragedy may have been subcontracting the demolition “on the cheap” to the John Galt Corp., an entity made up of executives of Safeway Environmental, a company criticized by New York City investigators because of ties to organized crime. The John Galt Corp. also has ties to Bloomberg’s administration.

Another subcontractor, North American Site Developers, Inc., indicated that it withdrew from the project after its president got an anonymous telephone threat.

The New York Daily News reports that state officials knew all along that yet another company, Rapid Demolition, with a history of worksite fires, was actually working on the demolition under subcontract to Safeway Environmental.

John Galt Corp. has since been fired.

Although the fire released toxic contaminants into the air of lower Manhattan, Bloomberg and city officials quickly gave an all-clear on air safety.

On this Sept. 11, the federal Environmental Protection Agency ordered the Deutsche Bank building sealed and all demolition work halted pending a full investigation and a new plan for safe cleanup.

First responders involved in rescue and search efforts at the WTC site, as well as area residents, say they have ongoing concerns about asbestos and other toxic pollutants in the air. The fears have been made stronger by high rates of illness and death suffered by those working and living in the area, and by public officials’ secret planning for rebuilding the site. Many cite the dissemination of false information by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Bush administration officials in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, claiming that the area was safe when in fact it was not.

Many say the main driving motive in this continuing drama has been the profits to be made from some of the world’s most valuable real estate. The scramble to get at least some part of the profits and the uncertainties of the real estate market, with the threat of a big downturn in the near future, has produced both an unseemly haste to move forward (running roughshod over sensibilities of victims’ families) and protracted struggles for control among city, state and federal agencies and developers (which have slowed down the rebuilding process considerably).

City officials have several times declared the search for victims’ body fragments complete in order to fast-forward demolition and rebuilding, only to be forced to retreat after further discoveries. Victims’ friends and relatives have had to press for a suitable monument to be included in the plans. Ceremonies to mark the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks were forced away from Ground Zero so that the events would not interfere with construction.