Owner of Vacant Ground Zero Skyscraper Vows Improved Safety

September 25, 2007

The owner of an abandoned ground zero skyscraper where two firefighters died said it will fix hazardous stairwells, clear out combustible debris and make several other safety changes.

Officials said shortly after the Aug. 18 blaze that the firefighters who responded to the former Deutsche Bank tower encountered conditions that made their job even more risky, like barricades in the stairwells, debris strewn about and complicated blockades in areas being decontaminated of asbestos and other toxins.

The skyscraper has been condemned since the morning of the Sept. 11 attacks six years ago, when it was hit by debris from the plane crash and collapse of the World Trade Center’s south tower. It once stood 41 stories, but workers were in the midst of dismantling it floor by floor when the fire broke out.

The building’s owner, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., said it had agreed to the city’s safety protocols to improve the working conditions and fire safety in the building. The upgrades are expected to be completed in two to three weeks, city officials said.

LMDC Chairman Avi Schick and Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler said in a joint statement that all agencies involved are “working to implement them and to ensure that the decontamination and the deconstruction … resumes in the safest possible manner.”

Among the upgrades is a plan to change the system that creates negative air pressure on some floors as part of the asbestos containment process.

Officials believe that negative air pressure caused the fire to behave differently: flames were sucked downward instead of toward the upper floors, which surprised firefighters, who typically set up their base of operations a few floors under the fire.

The new requirements say the negative air pressure system must be able to be switched on and off from one location on the ground level, rather than a piecemeal network with different switches on every sealed floor.

The other changes include:

Putting fireproof doors at every entrance in the stairwells, where handrails and illuminated exits will also be installed and floors will be clearly marked.

Any extra decontamination materials, like plastic sheeting and plywood barriers, must be stored in a special vault in the basement. Previously, it was stacked and strewn throughout the building.

A safety manager must be on site every day, 24 hours a day.

Prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into the fire, which was believed to have been started by careless smoking on an upper floor, probably by a worker.

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