NY Times - September 27, 2007by WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM and CHARLES V. BAGLI
The removal of the pipe has been a central issue in the early stages of the criminal investigation into the Aug. 18 fire at the former bank headquarters, which left two firefighters dead. The missing pipe delayed the Fire Department's efforts to put water on the blaze and may have contributed to the deaths of the firefighters.
The workers, employees of the John Galt Corporation, the asbestos abatement and demolition subcontractor, told the authorities that they removed the 42-foot section of pipe late last year because it was sagging from the threaded rods that held it to the ceiling, two of the people said.
The workers told the authorities that they believed that the six-inch cast iron pipe, which ran along the basement ceiling, was a feeder line for the building's sprinkler system, and not part of the standpipe system designed to carry water in emergencies from the street to the upper reaches of the building, the people said. The sprinkler system has been inoperable since the collapse of the adjacent World Trade Center damaged the tower.
The city building code requires that a standpipe be maintained and tested during demolition of a building. But because the sprinkler system was already inoperable, there was no requirement that the sprinklers be maintained during the deconstruction.
The workers made their statements to city fire marshals and prosecutors with the office of the Manhattan district attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, which is conducting the criminal investigation into the fire, the people said.
Among the Galt supervisors who approved the action was Mitchell Alvo, who was a project manager for the Galt company and had previously served as the president of Safeway Environmental Corporation, the people said. Safeway is under investigation by the city because officials have accused it of violating a monitoring agreement under which the company did city work.
While Safeway was involved in the preliminary phase of the troubled deconstruction project, it was rejected for the primary subcontract to take the building down, in part because of the city investigation, and because one of its previous owners had two felony convictions and was accused of having ties to the mob.
Investigators found the account provided by the workers credible and believe that there was nothing malevolent about the removal of the pipe, which was taken out of the building and later disposed of, one of the people said.
Mr. Alvo was also interviewed by prosecutors, but it is not clear what he has said about the removal of the section of the standpipe.
Mr. Alvo and a Galt executive declined to comment yesterday, citing the investigation, as did a spokesman for the Fire Department and a spokeswoman for Mr. Morgenthau's office.
The investigation by Mr. Morgenthau's office is focused not only on how the firefighters, Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino, died. Prosecutors are also examining why some inspections required by the Buildings and Fire Departments were not conducted or failed to uncover the missing section of pipe.
They are also looking into why the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which owns the building and is overseeing the demolition, allowed its construction manager, Bovis Lend Lease, to hire the Galt company, a contractor with little demolition experience and close ties to Safeway, for the enormously complex demolition job.
Prosecutors have also learned that a section of the pipe that was found in the basement after the fire and sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation lab in Quantico, Va., for testing was not a portion of the pipe that the workers had taken down, as they had suspected, two people briefed on the matter said.
In fact, it was a portion of pipe that broke off on the day of the blaze when water pumped by a firetruck in the street rushed through the standpipe system with great force, they said.
While prosecutors have concluded that they now know how and why the pipe was taken down, they have yet to conclude whether the evidence shows that its removal caused or contributed to the firefighters' deaths, one of the people said.
The fire at the building, at 130 Liberty Street, exposed a tangle of failures and missteps in the already troubled project.
The effort to take down the building, which stands beside ground zero as an ugly reminder of the Sept. 11 attack and the slow progress of rebuilding Lower Manhattan, has been interrupted by a seemingly endless series of setbacks and political squabbles.
Prosecutors and fire marshals have been painstakingly piecing together the Fire Department's response to the blaze and have subpoenaed thousands of documents from the Buildings and Fire Departments, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the Galt company, Bovis and other contractors.