10 Years Ago: The Deadly Fire at 130 Liberty, and a Chilling Story of Escape

Smoke billows from 130 Liberty Street on Aug. 18, 2007, as a fire spreads through 13 floors. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Aug. 22, 2017

It was 10 years ago this month, on Aug. 18, 2007, that fire started from a lit cigarette broke out on the 17th floor of 130 Liberty Street, the former Deutsche Bank building. A hulking remnant of the 9/11 attacks, the building contained toxic dust and had been partially demolished when the blaze occurred, spreading to 13 floors. Two firefighters, Joseph Graffagnino and Robert Beddia, died on the 14th floor.

Because of a broken standpipe and other unsafe conditions that later resulted in the indictment of the demolition contractor and three construction supervisors, the fire nearly took the lives of many other firefighters as well. One of the 46 who were seriously injured was Steve Olsen, 47, a 19-year veteran assigned to Ladder 1 on Duane Street. Olsen, who had barely escaped with his life on 9/11, suffered a knee injury during his efforts to escape the building. He retired the next year. (Still suffering from the injury, Olsen, along with another firefighter, has been waging a protracted lawsuit against the general contractor, Lendlease. “The knee pain is like a constant reminder of what happened 10 years ago,” Olsen told the Daily News. )

Days after the fire, Olsen spoke to the Trib about his harrowing escape from 130 Liberty Street. On this, the 10th anniversary of the tragedy, we are publishing his story once again.

I was assigned to the F.A.S.T. truck (Firefighter Assist and Search Team). Our job was to assist firefighters if they got in trouble.

We took the outside construction elevator to the 15th floor. Everybody was all jammed up there. About 50 guys. They said stairway A and B were blocked. They couldn’t go up. But I couldn’t understand that. I wanted to find a way in case we had to get up there.

I went to the B staircase and walked up the stairs but it just ended. I cut through heavy-duty construction plastic, exposing a wood box over the 16th floor. They had taken the walls down on 16 and put a heavy timber box around the whole staircase. I couldn’t lift it. I tried forcing it. I tried putting my back on it. Johnny Moore from 10 Truck worked with me. We couldn’t open it.

Looking for another way up, we went to the east side of the 15th floor where a firefighter was taking the glass out, and we finished taking it out. Then John Moore and I shimmied up the bars connecting the scaffold to the building, climbed to the scaffold and went up the outside staircase on the scaffold to around the 18th floor.

Heavy heat and noxious smoke was coming off the north face of the building and I had to put my mask on. I was afraid I would take a hit, pass out and fall off the scaffold. John reached in with a six-foot hook and shoved it through an air vent. A steady stream of black smoke came gushing out from the pressure. We knew we couldn’t survive in that.

I tried to call the captain to say we have an outside way up but it’s heavy smoke and we can’t make entrance without hose lines. I couldn’t get through to him because of all the radio traffic—officers wanting to know where the water was. I went back down the scaffold to the 15th floor but now the floor was full of smoke and I hear everybody yell on the radio, “Pull back to the elevators.”

The room was banked down with smoke almost three quarters of the way to the floor. I’m back on my air tank again and I crawled out of that room to the next room, but it’s fully blackened down.

I tried to get back to the elevators with the rest of my company but I’m hitting plastic walls and I’m getting disoriented. So I figured my best bet was to go back to the window in the other room because I had air there. But now that room was banked down, as black as could be. For me, this was as close as you can come to going to hell. Over the radio you hear the panic in everybody’s voice. I was panicking myself. I was scared for my life.

My vibra alert was going off, telling me I’m running out of air. I have six minutes left. Just before my six minutes ran out I found the window.

At that point I stayed right by the window with my hand on it. Heavy black smoke was swirling, pushing out and sucking back into the building, a sign of a backdraft coming, when the gases ignite and catch on fire.

I couldn’t breathe because I’m out of air. I had to take my face piece off. I took a couple of hits of that blackened air and I just knew it wasn’t survivable. I had to jump to the scaffold, six feet out from the window.

I couldn’t see the pipes to shimmy out on this time but I could see the scaffold where I had to land. I knew I could jump the six feet, but what if I fall forward? I got very little space to land on. I was afraid I would overshoot the scaffold and go between the netting and the scaffold, down 15 flights.

I looked down and said I got to make this. I jumped like a cat and landed on all fours to make sure I didn’t go off the other side. I was holding on for dear life.

After I jumped out I looked up and I saw John coming down the scaffolding from 18. I told him you got to get below this window because it’s going to blow. We climbed down to about the 13th floor and there we tried to break in, hoping to get back to a staircase. But we’re six feet away from the building. It’s hard to get leverage when you’re so far away. I got the first piece of plywood off but there was plywood underneath.

I climbed the scaffolding to where the ladder of Ladder 10 was hooked up on the southeast corner and I cut through the netting. The guys from 10 Engine and 10 Truck were there. Everyone was going to go down the ladder. That was our way out. But a large amount of debris fell from above; glass, fiery debris hitting our helmets and our backs. You don’t look up in a situation like that.

Four of us were huddled together, putting our heads into the corner of the building. I got hit hard on the back. When there was a pause in the debris hitting us, we all four decided we would walk north on the east side of the scaffolding.

When we got to the north corner Lt. Gentilouomo felt he was burnt on the back of his neck. He had blisters on his neck. At that point we heard May Days from Engine 24 members, the company that lost two of its men. I already had the lieutenant who was in need of medical attention; my leg was hurting me from when I jumped. The lieutenant and I climbed down from the 10th floor through the stairs on the scaffolding to the ground and I took him to the 10 House for treatment.

I saw the awning on O’Hara’s bar had caught on fire and I went looking for a can [fire extinguisher] and couldn’t find one. In the meantime, somebody already had a can and was putting it out. Then I noticed the canvas covering on the hose of Engine 7 was burning from fiery debris. So I opened up one of the cans on Engine 7 and put it out.

My knee was hurting badly, swelling to three times its normal size. An ambulance took me to Saint Vincents for treatment and now I’m out on disability.

My first night home after the fire I couldn’t go in my house. I felt like I was trapped. I had to sleep outside on a lounge chair. As the wind blew, it would remind me of falling out the window and I kept waking up. I was constantly falling. No matter what I did I couldn’t fall asleep for the next few nights.