Escape plan hidden in Deutsche Bank fatal fire

Firefighters who responded to the Aug. 18 former Deutsche Bank building fire did not know of the special plan to allow emergency use of the building's sealed stairs, according to official documents and interviews. The stairwells were sealed with heavy plywood and plastic to prevent toxic materials from escaping, but hinged trapdoors were put in the plywood slabs.

By Consulting Specifying Engineer Staff October 3, 2007

Firefighters who responded to the Aug. 18 former Deutsche Bank building fire did not know of the special plan to allow emergency use of the building’s sealed stairs, according to official documents and interviews. Two firefighters were killed in the blaze.

The stairwells were sealed with heavy plywood and plastic to prevent toxic materials from escaping, but hinged trapdoors were put in the plywood slabs. The escape plan was not brought to the firefighters’ attention, fire officials say.

“The Fire Department was not involved in creating this plan, specifically — and most importantly — with regard to the sealed staircases,” said Francis X. Gribbon, the department’s chief spokesman. “We were not notified about it. We were not consulted about it.”

As a result, many firefighters were forced to leave the building by ways of exterior scaffolding or other escape routes. The two firefighters who were killed, Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino, were found near a sealed stairwell on the 14thfloor, one of them on top of the plywood slab.

Firefighters on other floors where the stairwells were sealed resorted to using power saws to cut through the plywood because they did not know about the trapdoors, fire commanders said. Fire officials said that the trapdoors might have provided some means of escape, but they would not have been adequate for large firefighters operating in heavy gear in spaces thick with smoke.

John Galt Corp. developed the plan last year. The contractor was hired to demolish the building at ground zero, which was damaged in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and contaminated with toxic dust. The stairwells were sealed to meet environmental regulators’ standards, who said decontamination efforts could create dangerous pollution in Lower Manhattan.

Prosecutors and fire officials studying the fire determined that several factors contributed to confusion that day. For starters, the standpipe for water supply had been dismantled and powerful exhaust fans used in the demolition drew fire and smoke down toward the firefighters, instead of rising.

Fire officials said that required inspections of the 41-story building were not performed in the months preceding the blaze, thereby losing the chance to notice the sealed stairwells.

Sealed stairwells are routine in demolition projects, as are emergency escape plans to help constructions and emergency workers use the stairs. However, New York City firefighters receive no training in the use of emergency escape mechanisms by contractors.

Under the emergency escape plan for the bank dated March 1, 2007, Galt officials envisioned sealed stairwells on select floors where contamination work was underway. Each of the seals would be outfitted with kick-out panels. The panels would have a weak point—either carved or cut into the plywood—to let a firefighter kick through to escape.

As built, the panels did not conform to that design. Instead of kick-out panels, the contractors cut small doors with hinges into the plywood, and covered the mechanism with two layers of polyethylene sealed with duct tape. To use the doors, emergency workers were supposed to cut through the coverings using carpet knives left nearby.

To learn details more about the fire and evacuation plan, click here.

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