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Meet the New NYC Fire Commish, Salvatore Cassano

Cliff Nielsen

A couple of weeks after Mike Bloomberg announced that 40-year fire department veteran Salvatore Cassano would replace Nicholas Scoppetta, the commissioner he had served as a top aide for eight years, the mayor went to the FDNY's Brooklyn headquarters to boast about the new record low in fire deaths.

Bloomberg attributed the decline to innovations at the department, praising Cassano in particular without mentioning that deaths are down to a similar degree in every city in America where cell phones are sold. Then the mayor introduced Cassano as "Nick," a slip of the tongue suggesting just how little change Cassano's appointment represents for the city's most troubled department.

What better, after all, describes Bloomberg's stand-pat third term than a job search for fire commissioner that went only as far as the office next door?

Cassano had been promoted by Scoppetta to become the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the FDNY. He's a caretaker, the embodiment of a City Hall preoccupied with far more important matters than new approaches in city government—namely, Bloomberg's preparations, led by campaign guru Howard Wolfson, for a possible presidential run.

No department in the Bloomberg era has been hit harder by scandal than Scoppetta and Cassano's FDNY. Legendary ex–Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau all but announced that he would have indicted the city for the department's role in the negligent homicide of two firefighters at the Deutsche Bank building in 2007, except he was restrained by the sovereign immunity statutes. No other department has compelled a federal judge to find intentional discrimination against black applicants, its nearly all-white force a national embarrassment. No other city agency has so mismanaged its overtime, medical leave, and pension policies that, over the past five years, 72 percent of firefighters magically qualified for three-quarters disability pensions, averaging $85,000 a year, compared to 19 percent of city cops and 25 percent of Chicago firefighters. Yet, when Bloomberg installed Cassano, the tabloids saluted the appointment, even though the Post had called 11 times for Scoppetta's firing over the Deutsche Bank debacle.

The fact is that Cassano was more personally involved than Scoppetta in the negligence that cost the lives of Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino and injuries to another 115 firefighters at the Deutsche demolition site, which is next to Ground Zero and was poisoned by toxins when the South Tower fell on it. There is no indication that Scoppetta was ever warned about conditions in the bank building or told of the need for a fire plan tailored to this particularly dangerous site. But the Voice has obtained just such a smoking gun memo to Cassano, sent to him through three high-ranking chiefs.

The mishandling of that warning was so disturbing that Morgenthau publicly attacked Cassano for doing nothing. But in his 32-page report, Morgenthau referred to Cassano by title rather than by name, and that has, so far, immunized the new commissioner from media criticism.

Cassano was hauled before Morgenthau's grand jury to explain his failure to respond to this memo, as were the three chiefs, and the D.A. came so close to indicting the city that the Bloomberg administration spent $5.6 million on a private law firm to fight it. Had Morgenthau not decided that he could not win the legal argument about the city's liability, Cassano's disregarded warning would have been a focus of the homicide case, brought against the criminally culpable Bloomberg administration. In a cover story last July 22, the Voice called the lethal fire Bloomberg's biggest scandal, but local media largely ignored it during the mayoral campaign. If Morgenthau, however, had brought the case he prepared, "the complete failure of the FDNY," as the D.A.'s report put it, might have become a greater obstacle to Bloomberg's third term.

There's no doubt, as sources within the administration concede, that Bloomberg was fully informed about Cassano's failings at the bank site. His decision to appoint him anyway is consistent with a mayor who will never run again for local office and couldn't care less what we think about it.

Tom Von Essen, the 9/11 fire commissioner who stood at Rudy Giuliani's side for months of daily press briefings, printed his daily diary in a book he later wrote called Strong of Heart: Life and Death in the Fire Department of New York. "Met Bloomberg today," was his note for November 20, 2001, when the newly elected mayor was planning his transition. "He agrees with me completely—need strong military person to take over FDNY—big job in front of him—strong business background OK—no insider." Instead, Bloomberg named Scoppetta, who had no fire, military, or business background, but, having held top public posts for decades, momentarily appeared to be an outsider.

And now, he has turned to the ultimate insider, the first five-star chief to serve as commissioner in 27 years, and put him in charge of a department that's had a distress alarm screeching for years.

 

As often as the schools and the NYPD get the headlines, the fire department's fortunes can define a mayor. The lasting image of Giuliani is at a fire funeral. David Dinkins lost to Giuliani in 1993 when the fire union—the only city union to buck the incumbent—memorably put thousands of its white, suburban members in polling places in the city's minority neighborhoods as part of a successful, election-day show of force designed to deflate turnout. Ed Koch, too, faced 6,000 firefighters who trooped across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest his firehouse cuts and broke with his 1989 re-election campaign.

The Cassano appointment is a testament to the distraction and disinterest already settling over Bloomberg's City Hall. His State of the City speech was a visionless yawn. From the deputy mayors to the top administrators in the agencies, nothing has changed. Even a Times call for greater diversity at the highest levels of his administration, on the heels of overwhelming black and Latino voter rejection, has gone unheeded, leaving two black finalists for the fire job at the firehouse door.

The mayor prefers to talk about his new national immigration initiative, and a 10-city volunteer program modeled after the one he started here. He's laying claim to a U.S. Senate seat, pushing Harold Ford onto the New York stage. He had his own candidate in the Massachusetts Democratic primary, dispatching a team of campaign aides to Boston to aid a losing cause in December, just as he did for Joe Lieberman in 2006.

Even while he threatens mass layoffs, he is packing the public payroll with people who worked on his most recent campaign, the largest campaign payroll in city history, turning the government itself into his presidential exploratory committee. His personal philanthropy, too, is taking a national turn, with his communications chief leaving to run it. His most recent campaign filings revealed that on the eve of the election, he steered $1.2 million to the Independence Party, the vehicle he used for his failed presidential campaign in 2006 and 2007, an oddly timed expenditure that appears to be more of an advance for future service than additional compensation for a campaign coming to a close.

If Bloomberg runs for president, he will need a mix of left and right political positions to bolster his independent ballot status. As mayor of New York, he's established his pro-gay, pro-choice, anti-gun, and other liberal qualifications already. If anything will establish his conservative bona fides, it's his supposedly "color-blind" fight for a white-dominated fire department, federal court interference be damned.

Bloomberg can count on Cassano to aggressively man that barricade with him, riding federal appeals that could position him for years to come in a race case against Barack Obama's Justice Department. It's the same with his sudden outspoken aversion to tax increases, a departure from years of a balanced mix of revenue hikes and service cuts to confront deficits.

The mayor has said repeatedly that he has "no plans" to run for president, a weak denial that depends on how Bloomberg defines a "plan."

On the other hand, the Cassano appointment, like so many other recent holding actions at City Hall, demonstrates that what Bloomberg has no actual plans for is his third term as mayor.

What's most hypocritical about Bloomberg's elevation of Cassano is that he approved the disciplining of a decorated chief for failing to respond to a memo almost identical to the one Cassano ignored.

Bloomberg announced the sudden actions against the chief, Richard Fuerch, 10 days after the fire. At a City Hall press conference with Cassano at his side, the mayor all but blamed Fuerch, the commander for downtown's Division 1, for the deaths of Beddia and Graffagnino.

Fuerch was a star in the department and had taught at Cooper Union and John Jay. But on the morning of August 27, 2007, he woke up to reporters and cameramen on his front lawn, spurred by a front-page Post image of a "smoking gun" memo that implicated him. The memo called for a fire plan that would tell firefighters what to expect, and how to respond to a blaze, in this particular, very complicated building under demolition. NY1 aired images of the memo as well, and it became such a stain on Fuerch's career that he was consigned to oblivion within the department.

Bloomberg addressed the memo at the press conference that day, saying that he'd asked numerous chiefs about Fuerch's failure to develop a plan after getting this memo and that they'd concluded Fuerch should be relieved of command.

An FDNY spokesman, Frank Gribbon, wouldn't answer the Voice's question of whether Cassano was one of the chiefs the mayor went to for advice about Fuerch, saying only that Cassano "did not discuss disciplinary penalties with the mayor."

 

The mayor was asked at the press conference why someone superior to Fuerch didn't overrule him. "We're certainly taking a look at that," said Bloomberg, insisting that "no decision goes all the way up," which would, strangely, make his own job pointless. Meanwhile, the mayor seemed to make the case himself for why decisions about the site should have been handled at the highest levels, calling it "particularly sensitive" and highly "dangerous," contending that it required a "specific" plan: "The question is, 'How far should it have gone?' and I don't have an answer to that yet."

Scoppetta had an answer about how high it actually had gone—since surely he knew about the similar memo to Cassano—but he said nothing about it at the press conference. "There were several memos written," he said. "We certainly knew about that memo and others, but to get into the specifics of the memos is to get into the evidence of the case, and we're really not permitted to do that."

The memo to Fuerch was hung like a noose on the front page of the Post, but the memo to Cassano was kept a grand-jury secret.

Cassano is seen on the videotape of the press conference bouncing on his heels and pursing his lips while his own role in the bungled lead-up to the fire goes mercifully unmentioned.

A year and a half later, when Morgenthau finally released his report, Cassano's memo was again obscured. The report says that in February 2005, "a memo was written" by the head of the department's Hazmat unit to the chief of operations, "containing recommendations for an emergency firefighting plan for the building." The chief of operations "neither approved nor endorsed the recommendations," wrote Morgenthau, "nor did he distribute them to the first-due units," listing five levels of FDNY command directly overseeing the Deutsche project, none of which ever got the memo. That's why Morgenthau found that "the top management of the FDNY failed to recognize that a plan beyond 'standard operating procedures' was necessary for fighting a fire in the building."

Gribbon concedes that the chief described in the report is Cassano, and that Cassano took no action when he got the memo.

The memo warning of danger at the Deutsche Bank building reached Cassano on February 2, 2005, more than a year before he was promoted from operations chief, the second-highest uniformed position, to the top job of chief of the department.

Gribbon says that because the memo was sent to Cassano two years before the building demolition actually started, it referred to a demolition contractor that pulled out of the job shortly thereafter, making the plan for work at the site "moot," meaning that there "was no need to circulate it to field units." Gribbon faults the D.A. for citing the memo "without providing the entire context," though the city signed an agreement stipulating to the facts in Morgenthau's report.

Fuerch, meanwhile, received his warning memos on January 15 and March 22, 2005, and they were based on the same uncertain timetable and the same contractor.

Somehow, to the FDNY, Fuerch's memo is a "smoking gun" of lethal liability, but Cassano's memo, about the same contractor and issued at nearly the same time, is not.

In fact, the D.A.'s report listed Fuerch as one of the field commanders who should have been sent a copy of the memo that was sent to Cassano, but instead Cassano allowed it to die at his desk. Had Fuerch received a forwarded memo from above, distributed by Cassano, at the same time that he was getting memos from a battalion chief below, the combination might well have been enough to awake the FDNY bureaucracy to the special circumstances of this project, and to make them aware of the need for a plan whenever the much-publicized demolition finally got under way.

Indeed, a case can be made that Cassano's warning was far more compelling than Fuerch's. Both memos started with battalion chiefs, low men on the totem pole in the field, but that's as far as Fuerch's memo had gone before it got to him. By the time Cassano got his notice, it had been passed up the chain of command to Robert Ingram, the citywide Hazmat chief, and even to John Norman, who headed special operations and was one of Cassano's top aides. In a quasi-military organization like the fire department, those steps up the ladder matter. Cassano also got much more information relevant to the subsequent fire than Fuerch did, including floor layouts, a detailed discussion of stairwell egress, and a critique from the Office of Emergency Management of how emergencies should be handled at the site.

"We should ensure Division 1 first-due units have a scheduled walk-through" of any emergency plan "and a good working knowledge of the site," Hazmat battalion chief Robert Strakosch wrote to Cassano, a message Cassano never conveyed to the division commander, Fuerch. "The site is high-profile and apparently full of dangerous materials," he wrote, recommending "some planned visits to the site," unconnected to who the contractor was. He also noted prophetically that "FDNY operations at the site would most likely be high-profile also." Ingram added that he thought "familiarization with known hazards on the site" was necessary, as were site visits by the field forces and Norman's special operations unit, which reported directly to Cassano. Unlike Fuerch, Cassano never signed and approved the memo, leaving it blank.

 

All four of the chiefs named on the Cassano memo were grilled by Morgenthau's office, sources from the department and the probe agree. Gribbon concedes that Cassano was put in the grand jury. So was Norman. The D.A.'s investigators were incensed by Cassano's failure to act.

When Bloomberg appointed his new fire commissioner, was he aware that Morgenthau's report cast blame on Cassano, though not by name?

Says Jason Post, a Bloomberg spokesman: "As a matter of policy, we do not discuss what comes up in interviews with potential appointees, but we are well aware of Sal's record, which is precisely why the mayor appointed him."

Just two days after the 2007 press conference, the fire department quietly dropped all charges involving the Fuerch "smoking gun" memo.

Scoppetta wrote a letter on August 29 to the union that represents chiefs, the Uniformed Fire Officers Association (UFOA), refusing to turn over reports associated with the Fuerch memo and explaining that the 2005 events had nothing to do with Fuerch's transfer to headquarters. Though Scoppetta said at the press conference that the memos were "what led to the removing" of Fuerch and other chiefs, he argued in this letter that the transfers were solely "based on the failure to inspect the Deutsche Bank building after demolition began." Scoppetta even said he was "reiterating" a position he'd previously taken.

Scoppetta's sudden reversal remained under wraps for two years, while Morgenthau concluded his probe, and only came to light when the city announced the final discipline against Fuerch and six other chiefs in 2009. By then, no one in the media seemed to recognize that the original rationale for blaming Fuerch had simply faded away.

But it was a calculated move, allowing Scoppetta and Cassano to sidestep a legal battle that would surely have exposed their own double standard in the handling of the similar memos to both Fuerch and Cassano.

There were no banner headlines noting that Fuerch was no longer being disciplined for the "smoking gun" memo, but for not enforcing what is called the "15-Day Rule," which requires regular inspections of buildings under construction or demolition. That was the rule Scoppetta cited in the letter to the UFOA two days after all that bluster at the press conference.

The letters of reprimand in the chiefs' files didn't even refer to the Deutsche building, which hadn't been inspected once by the FDNY in the six months of work prior to the fire. Instead, the chiefs were faulted, as Gribbon now says, for a general failure to enforce the rule. Cassano and Scoppetta could just as easily have been charged with that violation, since Gribbon concedes that they said "nothing about the 15-day rule" in any regular department orders during the many years they were at the top before the fire. The 15-day rule became so important because the firefighter deaths were caused, said Morgenthau, by a 42-foot breach in the basement standpipe, which made it impossible to get water on the fire and which surely would have been detected in the most cursory inspection. He indicted three construction supervisors and a subcontracting company for the standpipe breach.

Once again, though, Cassano was spared by Morgenthau's aversion to naming names. The Morgenthau report was referring to Cassano, sources involved in the probe affirm, when it found that "the failure to inspect the site and discover the hazards that ultimately contributed" to the deaths of the firefighters "implicates high-ranking FDNY officials." These officials knew that fire companies weren't doing inspections, the report found. The requirement that inspections be done every 15 days, wrote Morgenthau, "was ignored even though high-ranking fire officials clearly recognized that buildings undergoing construction, demolition, and abatement were extremely dangerous for firefighting operations." The sources say the obvious—that each of the references to high-ranking officials includes Cassano, who was, after all, the department's highest-ranking officer.

If that wasn't enough to give Bloomberg pause, how about the Deutsche Bank report issued last year by the DOI, whose commissioner works for Bloomberg and does background checks for major appointees like Cassano? The DOI's report contained a legion of critical comments about Scoppetta's malfunctioning "executive team," which unequivocally included Cassano. Just to make Cassano's culpability inescapable, the report said that what was missing "at each and every level within the chain of command" was any effort to ensure that inspections rules were being followed.

 

It named Scoppetta, Cassano, and two other top chiefs, said they were interviewed about "the culture of widespread disregard" of inspection requirements, and faulted senior command for not addressing "noncompliance with the 15-day rule." Confronted with the D.A. and DOI findings, Gribbon told the Voice that Scoppetta and Cassano had "no reason to believe that inspections were not being conducted," as tortured a response as a city mouthpiece is likely to make.

Since Morgenthau found that the rule was "almost universally ignored," Gribbon is suggesting that the two at the top were virtually the only people in the department who had reason to believe the bank building was being meticulously inspected.

Cassano sparked a controversy about the fire within the department that October, when he spoke at a service at the Firefighters Memorial Monument in Riverside Park honoring the three members who had died in the line of duty in 2007. "In the past couple of months," he said, clearly referring to the period since the Deutsche blaze, "the department has been criticized by the media, and in fact by some of our own members. But through all this, the department has remained strong." Steve Cassidy, the firefighter union leader who had castigated Scoppetta, took the remark as a "wholly inappropriate" and "political" use of the 100th Annual Memorial Service to "attack those who criticized him." Considering what Cassano knew, and what Cassidy didn't, about his own failings in the lead-up to the fire, Cassano's blast at such a solemn occasion was also a disturbing display of hubris.

The mayor's decision to promote Cassano was an implicit shot at the DOI and the D.A.'s office, as well as a message to the loyal elite at the top of the administration that no one would be held accountable, even for fatal blunders, as long as they were team players. Bloomberg even saluted Cassano at the press conference when he appointed him for developing the department's "risk-based" inspection regime after the fire, without mentioning his role before it, when chiefs drove around their districts eyeballing buildings for inspection and when field inspections dropped from 68,000 to 48,000 between fiscal years 2005 and 2007.

In fact, it was Cassano's successor as operations chief, Pat McNally, who finally developed a specific fire plan for the bank site a week after the fire, a clear indication of whose job it was to develop a plan before the fire, when Cassano ran operations and got the memo he ignored. It was also McNally who issued new inspection protocols a couple of months after the fire, suggesting who was responsible for doing that job as well. As chief of the department, Cassano approved McNally's fire plan and belated reforms, making it clear that he was the one man who'd held both of the positions critical to the planning and inspection issues at the heart of this disaster.

Maybe promoting him is what the mayor means by his corporate CEO management style.

There is much about Sal Cassano to be admired. He has five medals for courage, all no doubt deserved.

The mayor has said that Cassano had, with Scoppetta, helped rebuild the FDNY after 9/11, a badge he can wear proudly. Unprecedented federal homeland security funding helped. New technology helped. There is something to be said for what he and Scoppetta did to heal a department that suffered greater losses than any unarmed unit in the history of the country.

But the Deutsche Bank fire showed how far the department still had to go, six years after the attacks. Just as the department did not recognize how obvious a target the World Trade Center complex was after the 1993 bombing—preparing no fire plan for it while none other than Sal Cassano was its downtown division commander—it did not see the most toxic building in the city as a priority years later, even as it was being taken apart floor by floor in New York's first simultaneous abatement and demolition project.

One of the mechanisms to deal with exceptional challenges like the bank building was the FDNY's target hazard program, which required that any building identified as a particular threat get mandatory inspections, a fire plan all its own, and multiple-unit drills. But Morgenthau reported that, though the program still existed on paper, the FDNY had in fact "discontinued" it before the fire, with no trace of who had made that decision or why. All we know is that Morgenthau saw the demise of the program "as a lost opportunity," and that Cassano was at the top of the department when it died.

 

All that the firefighters in the downtown firehouse called the 10/10 had to do was walk directly across the street to inspect the bank building. Or demand that a specialized unit with the proper gear do so. Nine fires hit the building during the six months of demolition before the big one, and no one at the 10/10 ever noticed. A 15-foot pipe, traveling at 113 miles per hour, fell from the site and hit the 10/10 in May with an impact force of 76,000 pounds, penetrating the roof and injuring two firefighters. Scoppetta rushed to the firehouse and climbed to the roof.

A stop-work order halted demolition for two weeks, but all the department did was meet four times with the contractors to get them to repair the roof and build a protective bridge over the sidewalk in front of the firehouse. The meeting minutes, which were routed through Scoppetta and Cassano, reveal that no questions were ever raised about fire safety issues at the building, and no inspection was discussed, much less ordered. The fire brass instead spent much of the time talking about restoring the firehouse gym. That kind of preoccupation was what forced Morgenthau to berate Scoppetta, again only by title, for going to the firehouse and not ordering an inspection.

In the aftermath of the pipe incident, just two weeks before the fire, the department was put on notice once more that its attention was required at the bank site. At the start of the demolition, the FDNY had granted a burning permit to the contractors for the acetylene torches that were knocking down the floors with flames, and the permit expired on Friday, August 3, causing another stop-work order. City Hall was pushing to get the building done as quickly as possible, even promising bonuses to the contractors, because JP Morgan Chase was planning to build a new headquarters on the site. In record time for a department that putters along, the permit was extended that Monday, with Bureau of Fire Prevention inspectors reportedly rushing to the site to see the torches and canisters. Again, no one looked inside the building—at the standpipe or the sealed isolation barriers on each floor that would soon prove deadly for two firefighters.

The day of the fire had its parallels with 9/11 as well. Two hundred and seventy-five firefighters charged into an empty building, and it took an hour to figure out that they were up there without any working water.

The department issued a 176-page report on the "operational response to the fire," but it did not explore any of the management issues, promising a future "departmental administrative investigation" and referring to the incident commander only as "Car 15." Gribbon says now that there's "no point in any administrative critique," promising that none will ever occur, just as no departmental review did after 9/11. Unwilling to examine its own high-rise firefighting strategies, the department is doomed to go on killing its own. Cassano, who spent days at the hospital and the site after the fire and even assumed the title of "incident commander," managing the response at one point, is at the heart of each of these decisions.

Sam Casperson, one of the authors of the 9/11 Commission Report, said after a year of studying the response that day: "The Fire Department errs on the side of putting too many people in harm's way than too few. They were going to flood the tower. They had no idea of incident management. The thumb doesn't know what the little finger was doing. They had no idea how many firefighters were there." A department has "to have a plan for major incidents," he concluded, "and they didn't have one." Tom Von Essen, the commissioner that day, told the Times in 2002: "I've been a firefighter since 1970, and have often stood on floors where we needed 10 people and had 30. There's a lack of control that's dangerous on an everyday basis to firefighters." The next time, said Von Essen then, "we need to be ready beforehand."

What everyone from Morgenthau's office to department insiders concedes is that it was pure luck that only Beddia and Graffagnino died at the Deutsche Bank fire, where a confluence of things gone wrong, before and during the incident, could have killed so many more.

Scoppetta and Cassano then battened down the hatches, just as they did after 9/11. It's a department that won't ask the vital questions because it already knows the damning answers. When Morgenthau's case against the Deutsche contractors goes to trial later this year, the department will go on trial, too, as documents filed by the defense make clear. They intend to defend their clients by pointing the finger at every false step the department took at the site, from inspections to response, contending that the FDNY commanding officer "ordered his men up to the smoke-filled 15th floor before confirming that the standpipe could deliver water."

 

The numbing fact is that, within yards of Ground Zero, every misstep that preceded the deaths of 343 firefighters in 2001 was repeated in 2007. While Sal Cassano was a chief and commander overseeing the WTC from 1993 through 1999, the department developed no fire plan for the target that the terrorists vowed to hit again. Even Bloomberg said at that 2007 press conference that the Deutsche Bank building was "unique" and unmistakably merited its own plan, and it wasn't just Richie Fuerch who failed to develop one. Nor was it just Sal Cassano.

Morgenthau nearly indicted the city and the FDNY once before—in the late '80s when Ed Koch was mayor and seven people died at Schomburg Plaza, a 35-story Harlem residential tower. In that case, the FDNY performed an inspection just six weeks before the fire, but it certified that the sprinkler system was working, when it had been dead for months. Unlike Bloomberg, Koch demanded a departmental inquiry and dumped his commissioner before the district attorney concluded his probe. "There was no question of widespread fault and negligence and the grand jury wanted to bring back indictments," Morgenthau said, issuing a report then, too. Both mayors announced reforms, starting with the inspection system.

So will the next mayor, until one finally gets a grip on a department seemingly accountable to no one, not even its dead brothers.

wbarrett@villagevoice.com


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