The Hazards of Deconstruction

December 22nd, 2008 by

When we think of safety on the construction site, it’s usually in the context of new and renovated buildings. But deconstruction is fraught with hazards, too. Just as the timing and sequence of events in building must be constantly reviewed from a safety perspective, deconstruction requires a similar review. You could say that failure to anticipate safety concerns, whether you are building or unbuilding, is criminal. That’s just what the grand jury decided in New York City.
The Deutsche Bank building in lower Manhattan was a victim of the 9/11 attacks. The building withstood the initial blasts, but the structural damage was too severe for repair. The building had to come down. In the process of this deconstruction, a fire broke out in August 2007. Firefighters do not distinguish between buildings going up or coming down: they rushed in to put out the blaze. Firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino died in the blaze.
In the anguish that always follows this type of fatality, fingers have pointed in many directions and then settled on two individuals: Mitchell Alvo, an executive of subcontractor John Galt Corporation, and Jeffrey Melofchik, a site safety supervisor for Bovis Lend Lease, the construction management company. (You can read the New York Times article by William Rashbaum and Charles Bagli here.)
What went wrong? Where did deconstruction decisions cross the line into criminal behavior?
Timing and Sequence
In deconstruction, it’s not just what you do, but when you do it. At the time the fire broke out, the building’s sprinkler system had been dismantled. The fire exits had been sealed off (to facilitate asbestos abatement). A standpipe designed to carry water to the upper floors had also been dismantled. Finally, cheap, non-fire-retardant plywood had been used in deconstruction. None of these actions in themselves are criminal acts, but because they combined to create extraordinary hazards in the event of a fire, they resulted in grand jury indictments.
You may wonder what role New York City played in the hazardous conditions. Plenty, but the city dodged indictment due to the formidable legal obstacles in establishing liability for a public entity. Nonetheless, the city has agreed to acknowledge its failures and establish a new division in the Fire Department, to be staffed with 25 civilians. Its mission will be to inspect high-rise buildings under construction or demolition. Let’s hope they do a better job than the city’s crane inspectors…
My thoughts wander to Jeffrey Melofchik, the site safety supervisor. In retrospect, he must be going over and over the sequence of events that lead to the deaths of the two firefighters. Beddia and Graffagnino haunt his dreams. Now his guilt and self-reflection become a very public process as he faces a daunting accountability for his actions. My guess is that there is plenty of blame to go around, but in this sad tale, two men are apparently in position to take the fall.