The Tree of Guilt
Many are familiar with the basic details of the death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman in the mountains of Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. It was attended by a series of unseemly cover-ups before the US military was finally forced to admit that Tillman, for all of his apparent bravery, died at the hands of his fellow soldiers in a confused and running fire fight.
Tillman comes to mind this week because the trial phase is ending in the case of three contractors charged with manslaughter in the deaths of FDNY firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino who died while fighting a fire at the former Deutsche Bank Building located at 130 Liberty Street on August 18, 2007. The original 41-story building was damaged during the 9/11 attacks. At the time of the fire it was being de-constructed and was down to 26 stories.
Those contractors, Jeffrey Melofchik, Mitchel Alvo and Salvatore DePaola, are to Beddia and Graffagnino, what the Afghan soldiers were to Pat Tillman. They were players in a life and death drama but singling them out as the proximate cause of the fireground fatalities is effectively the same as asserting that the Afghanis fired the weapons that killed Tillman. Saying it does not make it so. Like the enemy troops who set the stage for Tillman’s company to mistake him for the enemy with deadly consequences, these contractors are simply the lowest hanging fruit on the tree of guilt. Where professional firefighters are concerned, they are nothing more than convenient scapegoats that nobody should feel good about.
Cover-ups can take many forms from the destroy the evidence and lying type in the Tillman affair to the more subtle sort characterized by internal reports that receive little real scrutiny or the attachment of primary blame to persons with tangential responsibility. The latter is surely the case with the Deutsche Bank fire.
FDNY, with all of its blemishes and imperfections is the nation's most experienced fire department. The level of activity and the size of the enterprise have resulted in a firefighting force that is characterized by great professionalism and superb capabilities. Ironically, it's no stretch to consider them the "rangers" of the American fire service. But rangers, as the Tillman case proves, can also make terrible mistakes.
What happened on Liberty Street that day? The official report is a litany of gross errors and misjudgments:
- Firefighters were committed to extremely exposed and dangerous positions in an abandoned building under active demolition.
- It took over 80 minutes to obtain a reliable water supply.
- Desperate calls for help went unheard and unanswered.
- Fire crews split up losing accountability and control.
It was by any measure an operational nightmare and it appears that those most responsible–senior fire commanders and FDNY department leaders– all but escaped accountability. That accountability is now being borne by those indicted who had nothing to do with the actual actions that killed Beddia and Graffagnino. Should they be found guilty it will be false and empty justice mostly because those who allowed the event to unfold as it did are watching from safely outside the courtroom. Perhaps as importantly, it may allow firefighters to escape the very painful lessons of that day as real responsibility is lost in a fantasy of justice.
The US Army learned a bitter lesson with the death of Pat Tillman: if you are really serious about preventing the tragedy of friendly fire incidents, attempting to gloss them over or cover them up is folly. The only thing worse than a glossing over is pinning the real blame on others to avoid the painful realization that firefighters are chiefly responsible for the Deutsche Bank deaths.
At the end of the Tillman affair, after the cover-ups and lies, US Army Secretary Pete Geren had this to say:
"Give them the truth as we know it, as fast as we can."
Wise words to live by and Joseph Graffagnino and Robert Beddia deserve no less.
………. Eric Lamar
U. S. Army (mil.com)
New York Times
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