"343" is a symbol of great sadness to members of the FDNY and their families as 343 is the number of FDNY firefighters who died on September 11, 2001. That staggering figure is remembered quite readily when recalling the events of that day and during the remembrances that have followed. However, almost six years later, the lives of two additional NY firefighters were claimed during the demolition of the 9/11-damaged Deutsche Bank Building.
The 41-story Deutsche Bank Building stood adjacent to the World Trade Center and was severely damaged by falling debris and smoke when the Twin Towers collapsed. The damage to the skyscraper was so extensive that it had to be demolished. However, as the federal EPA requires, before it could be demolished, all asbestos-containing materials needed to be removed.
By August 18, 2007, demolition was well underway and the building now stood at only 26 stories tall. Around 3:40 pm, a massive seven-alarm fire broke out as a result of a discarded cigarette in the asbestos decontamination unit on the 17 th floor. The building had not been inspected by the Fire Department since March, when it should have been inspected every 15 days. As a result, a crucial but inoperable fire standpipe forced firefighters to raise hoses up from the street to combat the flames. Inside the building, three firefighters struggled to pull a hose through the deconstructed building. Only one of these men survived. The configuration of the asbestos abatement added to the difficulty of fighting a fire in an already structurally-compromised building.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), an institute within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), completed a description and evaluation of the incident as part of their fire fighter fatality investigation. Several items stand out from the asbestos abatement as contributors to the fire:
- White plastic sheeting was used to partition the floor area into separate zones. All these partitions created maze-like conditions for the firefighters.
- Numerous zones were under negative pressure, as required for asbestos abatement, possibly drawing smoke and fire into localized areas.
- Stairwell doors were blocked by wooded hatch covers as part of the construction of the asbestos containments.
- Plastic sheeting, construction debris, and exposed lumber in partitions provided additional fuel.
These contributing conditions created by the asbestos abatement project have been recognized by several authorities, and in an effort to maximize safety, New York City enacted a number of new laws to ensure that asbestos abatement projects are conducted safely. These laws impact the ways that asbestos projects are filed, approved and inspected, and involve new levels of cooperation among the agencies that oversee asbestos and construction safety: the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (NYC DEP), the Department of Buildings (DOB) and the Fire Department (FDNY). Most notably, the NYC DEP created the Asbestos -Technical Review Unit (A-TRU) to ensure that asbestos abatement is conducted safely and a new process for filing for asbestos permits called Asbestos Reporting and Tracking System (ARTS).
ARTS enables applicants to submit applications and/or receive approvals (or objections) electronically. During the application process, applicants are asked questions to identify if
- the buildings fire protection systems (e.g., fire alarm or sprinkler system) will be turned off as a result of the abatement work,
- abatement work will result in blocked or compromised egress or whether any components of the fire protection system are going to be removed as part of the abatement
- abatement work entails removal of passive fire protection (e.g., fire resistance rated walls, sprayed on fireproofing, or smoke dampers)
If there is an impact to any of these fire protection items then a comprehensive Work Place Safety Plan must be developed for the project indicating abatement containment areas and systems, obstructed and temporary exits, tenant protection and a description of any measures that will be taken to mitigate compromised fire protection systems or means of egress. As a final item intended to promote life safety during abatement projects, the asbestos supervisor must inspect exits daily to ensure that there are no exterior blockages or impediments to exiting. If any blockages or impediments are identified, work must stop until the blockage has been removed. Essentially, deconstruction and asbestos-abatement work cannot compromise the safety of workers and firefighters.
As Carrie Bettinger noted in a past EHSWire blog, In our society and legal system it seems that, yes, someone (or many) has to tragically die before change and regulation are considered. In this case, the tragedy was 343+2. Hopefully the A-TRU process and increased oversight from NYC DEP, DOB, and FDNY will prevent another similar tragedy from occurring.
Postscript: The last of the Deutsche Bank tower criminal trials were completed in July, 2011. More information can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/07/nyregion/final-defendant-is-acquitted-in-deutsche-bank-fire-trial.html.