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Fire near ground zero kills 2 firefighters

Skyscraper was abandoned after Sept. 11

Smoke billowed from the former Deutsche Bank building in New York yesterday. The cause of the fire was unknown. Smoke billowed from the former Deutsche Bank building in New York yesterday. The cause of the fire was unknown. (Seth Wenig/associated press)

NEW YORK -- A seven-alarm fire in an abandoned skyscraper killed two firefighters and sent a plume of gray smoke trailing above ground zero yesterday afternoon.

Officers at the scene were preventing nearby residents from returning to their homes, even to rescue pets, telling them that authorities were worried that the former Deutsche Bank office building, vacant since Sept. 11 turned it into a toxic nightmare, could fall. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that fear turned out to be unfounded.

Bloomberg sought to reassure residents that the chemicals in the building did not present a significant health risk, saying officials saw no need for a barrier around the site.

"Today's events really are another cruel blow to our city and to our fire department," 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. 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.

Firetrucks and police cars raced through lower Manhattan to reach a building already decimated by the terrorist attacks.

"We heard this crashing," said Elizabeth Hughes, who watched the fire start from her rooftop deck across from the tower. "And then a huge fire that went up three floors fast. It was massive. . . . Oh my God! I can't even go in and get my cats."

Hughes called 911, grabbed some of her things, and ran, she said.

The blaze began about a dozen floors up in the tower and was burning on multiple floors at the building, steps from where 343 firefighters lost their lives on Sept. 11.

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; others smashed the building's windows to let more air in to help firefighters reach the blaze.

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 three dozen firefighting vehicles, with more than 160 firefighters, responded to the blaze as pieces of burning debris fell from the building to the streets.

More than two hours after the blaze was first reported, it was declared a seven-alarm fire. Officials continued to push onlookers farther back from the building and set up a command post on the West Side Highway. Officials could be seen poring over a map of the area.

The cause of the fire was unknown. Smoke from the burning building was visible from midtown Manhattan and the New Jersey side of the Hudson River.

Scaffolding on the sides of the building was aflame as police shut down streets around ground zero.

The building at 130 Liberty St. has become a headache for redevelopers in the nearly six years since the attacks. The 1.4 million-square-foot office tower stood as a downtown Manhattan eyesore, contaminated with toxic dust and debris after the World Trade Center's south tower collapsed into it.

Efforts to dismantle the skyscraper were halted by a labor dispute last year, along with the ongoing search for the remains of attack victims.

More than 700 bones and fragments were discovered in the contaminated skyscraper from mid-2005 to June of this year, including some positively matched this year to a previously unidentified victim. The last bones were found at the building in March.

City officials concluded their search three months later.

There was another weeklong shutdown of work in May, when a 22-foot pipe fell through the roof of a nearby firehouse from the 35th floor.

Two years ago, redevelopment officials said the building contained excessive levels of seven hazardous substances, including dioxin and lead. As part of the demolition, a dozen air quality monitors were installed.

Errol Cockfield, a spokesman for the Empire State Development Corp., which is overseeing redevelopment at ground zero, said authorities were investigating whether the smoke could pose any environmental danger.