NEW YORK – Two New York firefighters died and several others were injured while battling a massive blaze in an abandoned skyscraper next to ground zero in lower Manhattan on Saturday in a haunting scene reminiscent of Sept. 11, officials said.
Officers at the scene prevented nearby residents from returning to their homes for several hours, telling them that authorities were concerned the former Deutsche Bank office building, vacant since the 2001 terrorist attacks turned it into a toxic nightmare, could fall. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that fear turned out to be unfounded.
The plume of gray smoke that trailed above the site of the World Trade Center raised concerns that toxic substances in the building could be spreading.
Bloomberg sought to reassure residents that the chemicals in the building likely did not present a significant health risk, saying air-quality tests so far showed no danger.
“Having said that, we are extremely careful. We don’t want to prejudge anything,” the mayor added. Tests were to continue overnight, he said.
One of the firefighters killed was identified as Joseph Graffagnino, 34, of Brooklyn. He was a member of Ladder 5, which lost 11 members on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Today’s events really are another cruel blow to our city and to our fire department,” Bloomberg said. He said the fire had “expanded our loss.”
Also killed was Robert Beddia, 53, of Staten Island. Bloomberg said both firefighters had become trapped, inhaled a great deal of smoke and gone into cardiac arrest.
Five or six other firefighters were taken to a hospital but were expected to be released, Bloomberg said. No civilians were hurt.
Construction crews had already dismantled 14 of the building’s 40 stories – reaching the 26th floor on Tuesday. Some firefighters used stairs to reach the burning upper floors of the building, just steps from where 343 firefighters lost their lives in the 2001 terror attacks.
The cause of the fire was not immediately known. Smoke pouring from the burning building was visible from midtown Manhattan and the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. Fire officials declared the blaze under control late Saturday.
The acrid smell of smoke, which hung over the neighborhood for days after Sept. 11, returned to lower Manhattan along with the wail of emergency vehicles. More than five dozen fire vehicles, with more than 270 firefighters, responded to the blaze as pieces of burning debris fell from the building to the streets.
By late Saturday evening, nearby residents who had been evacuated were told they could return.