If you’ve read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, as I did as an enthusiastic high-school rightwinger back in 1960, that’s a no-brainer. Galt was the hero of Rand’s novel who symbolized her own reactionary beliefs by leading a “strike” of creative, free-market geniuses against a regulation-burdened system that was controlled by the grasping, needy 99 percent of society.
It is also the name of the corporation that did the demolition work on the Deutsche Bank tower that was rendered uninhabitable after the 9/11 attack as a subcontractor to Bovis Lend-Lease, the huge multinational in charge of Columbia University’s Manhattanville’s expansion. On February 20, 2008 the NY Times reported:
Federal safety regulators have accused the contractors who were taking down the former Deutsche Bank tower in the summer of indifference or intentional disregard for dangerous conditions that led to a fatal fire there, and of a host of other serious safety violations, officials said on Tuesday.
The regulators cited the project’s general contractor, Bovis Lend Lease, an international construction management company, and its former subcontractor, the John Galt Corporation, for 44 safety violations, and proposed fining them nearly half a million dollars.
A year earlier (8/23/2007), the Times provided its readers with some background on the company obviously named after Ayn Rand’s regulation-hating hero:
The John Galt Corporation of the Bronx, hired last year for the dangerous and complex job of demolishing the former Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty Street, where two firefighters died last Saturday, has apparently never done any work like it. Indeed, Galt does not seem to have done much of anything since it was incorporated in 1983.
Public and private records give no indication of how many employees it has, what its volume of business is or who its clients are. There are almost no accounts of any projects it has undertaken on any scale, apart from 130 Liberty Street. Court records are largely silent. Some leading construction executives in the city say they have never even heard of it.
That may not be as surprising as it seems. John Galt, it appears, is not much more than a corporate entity meant to accommodate the people and companies actually doing the demolition job at the emotionally charged and environmentally hazardous site at the edge of ground zero.
The companies and project managers who have been providing the expertise, the workers and the financing for the job are Regional Scaffolding and Hoisting Company, which is not in business to demolish skyscrapers, and former executives from Safeway Environmental Corporation, a company that was already removed from one contract at 130 Liberty because of concerns about its integrity…
In the 17 months since Galt took shape — and as problems mounted at the demolition site, including repeated safety violations — city and state officials have made announcements about the work and problems at 130 Liberty referring to John Galt as if it were a fully established corporation, and never mentioning by name the more controversial and less than perfectly qualified people and companies doing the work.
(John Galt, by the way, is a central character, an engineer, in Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged.” The book begins with this line: “Who is John Galt?”)
John Galt’s stationery puts its headquarters at 3900 Webster Avenue in the Bronx, near Woodlawn Cemetery, the same address as Regional Scaffolding’s. The two companies also share many of the same officers…
Safeway first surfaced on the scene at 130 Liberty when it, along with Regional Scaffolding, won a $13 million scaffolding contract in 2005 for the bank building.
But Safeway, its former owners, Harold Greenberg, 61, and Stephen Chasin, 56, and another company they long operated, Big Apple Wrecking and Construction Corporation, had a troubled history.
Mr. Greenberg, of Staten Island, has gone to federal prison twice for crimes related to the industry.
Identified by federal investigators as a Gambino crime family associate, he was convicted in 1988 of bribing a federal inspector to overlook asbestos-removal violations while Big Apple was demolishing Gimbels department store on East 86th Street in Manhattan. Three years later he pleaded guilty to mail fraud in a bid-rigging scheme involving other contractors.
Safeway’s failure to disclose his criminal history and the accusations of mob ties led the authorities to bar the company from working on city schools in 2003. School investigators contended that Mr. Greenberg and his partner in Big Apple and Safeway, Mr. Chasin, sought to disguise their roles in companies in order to obtain public contracts and other work from which his convictions would bar them.
(Safeway Environmental was one of the subcontractors used in the development of a new headquarters for The New York Times, across Eighth Avenue from the Port Authority Bus Terminal.)
Although I was aware of the Deutsche Bank tragedy and the pattern of neglect that led to the death of firefighters there, I had no idea that Bovis Lend-Lease was held responsible.
History seemed to be repeating itself last Thursday when I arrived at my office on W. 131rd Street to encounter a small army of police cars, fire engines and television reporters gathered there on account of a building collapse across the street from where I work. Earlier that morning a partly-demolished building had collapsed on some workers, killing one.
The workers were employed by Breeze Construction, whose president Toby Romano was convicted in 1988 of bribing inspectors investigating health violations on asbestos-removal jobs. As opposed to Greenberg’s Gambino affinities, Romano was tied to the Luchese crime family. When I brought this fact to the attention of Robert Kasdin, a powerful officer at the university in charge of the “back office”, later that day when he was addressing our staff on the accident, he assured us that Breeze is now run by Toby Romano Jr. and not his criminal father. Anybody who is familiar with how the mob does business will not be assuaged by this, especially in light of another report that surfaced the next day in the NY Daily News:
THE TRAGIC death of a hardhat who was demolishing a building owned by Columbia University came after the school and its contractors racked up a slew of safety complaints, the Daily News has found.
The Ivy League institution has been hit with 59 code violations and has been forced to shut down work 13 times since launching its controversial campus expansion two years ago, building records show.
The complaints were spread across the 64 properties located on the 17-acre site, which runs from 125th to 133rd Sts., and between 12th Ave. and Broadway.
My guess is that Bovis Lend-Lease and Breeze will pay no penalties, either in cash or jail sentences, based on the outcome of a criminal trial related to the Deutsche Bank fatalities: all those charged were found not guilty. In cases such as these, it is very difficult to establish guilt given the often highly problematic nature of the physical evidence. The Times reported:
The prosecution theory revolved around one pipe in a maze of pipes in the toxic tower’s basement. Mr. Alvo was accused of ordering cut a standpipe that provides water to a high-rise in an emergency. When the blaze struck, firefighters could not get water on it for more than an hour.
Prosecutors argued Mr. Alvo and his co-defendants knew it was a crucial pipe for firefighters, that it shouldn’t have been cut and that they did nothing to repair it.
This sounds very much like the kind of defense that Breeze would adopt if its officers were ever brought to trial, as the Columbia Spectator reported on Monday:
Century-old beams, and not safety oversights, led to the death of a construction worker when a Manhattanville building collapsed on Thursday, according to the contractor responsible for the building’s demolition.
The building—which was being torn down as part of Columbia’s expansion into Manhattanville—was built about 100 years ago, and it collapsed when demolition workers from Breeze National cut a structural beam. Breeze National said in a statement that while most structural beams that run horizontally are joined together at a vertical column, the beam that the workers cut had an “unknown, unusual, latent condition.”
The beam, Breeze said, “carried past the column and was joined to the other horizontal beam by a splice with bolts” that was encased in two feet of concrete. Breeze said that because the building is so old, no available structural drawings revealed this unusual structure, and the bolts failed when the beam was cut, causing the collapse.
Even under the best of circumstances, demolition is a very dangerous business like firefighting, coal-mining or lumberjacking. Unlike firefighting, which is not subject to the dictates of the market, the other job categories operate under a very tight logic of time = money. Whether or not the accident would have occurred last Thursday, Columbia University has an obligation to make sure that Bovis and Breeze are kept on a tight leash. Given the school board of trustee’s domination by real estate developers and hedge fund managers, there is probably no reason to be optimistic.
The building collapse at Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion and the criminal past of Bovis and Breeze are reminders of the deep tentacles of the construction industry penetrated by the mafia. And as was the case with Deutsche Bank and Columbia’s expansion, time equals money. If shortcuts must be made at the expense of human life, so be it. This was the verdict of another construction “accident” that occurred on East 91st Street in 2008 just a few blocks from where I live. Last month, when the manslaughter trial began, the prosecutor used words almost the same as those used in the Deutsche Bank trial, as the NY Times reported on February 21. The article also pointed out the difficulties faced in rendering a guilty verdict:
A tower crane collapsed and killed two men on the Upper East Side in 2008 because the crane’s owner put profit ahead of safety, prosecutors said Tuesday as his manslaughter trial began.
An assistant district attorney, Eli Cherkasky, said the owner, James F. Lomma, had hired an unqualified Chinese company to do a critical repair that predictably failed, an “outrageous” departure from industry standards that was “criminal in every sense of the word.”
Mr. Cherkasky said repeatedly that the low price and quick turnaround by the Chinese company, RTR, had driven Mr. Lomma’s decision-making, causing the deaths of Donald C. Leo, who was operating the crane when it collapsed on May 30, 2008, and Ramadan Kurtaj, another construction worker.
“They were killed because of one man’s greed,” Mr. Cherkasky told Justice Daniel Conviser, who is hearing the case without a jury in State Supreme Court in Manhattan. “He was content to risk other people’s lives so he could collect $50,000 a month in rental fees.”
Mr. Lomma’s lawyers presented a different story in their opening remarks. They said that a heavy “headache ball” on the crane’s line was hoisted into the boom, ostensibly by the operator, causing the line to snap, and that the heavy ball fell straight down, forcing the suddenly unbalanced crane to tip over backward.
James Kim, a defense lawyer, said the risk of such an event was well known and referred to as “two blocking.” But he said officials had missed the true cause of the accident because they had focused on RTR’s welding work early in their investigation.
Mr. Kim also said that Mr. Lomma, the owner of New York Crane and Equipment Corporation, was not unduly concerned about the repair cost and lost revenue from the crane’s being out of service because a contract required the renter, Sorbara Construction, to keep paying the monthly fee during the crane’s repair, and insurance covered the cost of the repair itself.
The collapse of the crane at East 91st Street and First Avenue was the second fatal crane accident within a few months at the end of a tremendous cycle of building in the city. The acquittals from the earlier crane collapse, as well as from the 2007 blaze at the former Deutsche Bank building, show the difficulty of prosecuting such cases.
What the article does not mention is the role of the DeMatteis Corporation, who happens to be my landlord and also like Bovis not above doing business with mob-related outfits. I invite you to read what I wrote about all this back in 2008.
Finally, some words on John Galt. Back in 1960, when I was an Ayn Rand (and William F. Buckley) fan, I really had no idea what was going on in the world. My rightwing beliefs were mainly a reaction against the Kennedy liberalism that was popular at my school. In some ways I was no different from Charles Bukowski who used to talk up Adolph Hitler in his Los Angeles high school in the 1930s just to piss other students off.
Facing the draft and working for the welfare department in Harlem in 1967 was a cold glass of water thrown in my face. Not only was I averse to Ayn Rand-style libertarianism, I would have no use for Democratic Party liberalism of the sort that was ready to send me to Vietnam to kill or be killed. My last vote for a Democratic Party politician was for LBJ in 1964. That was that, as far as I was concerned.
My ideals clashed with the brutal reality of a criminal war and the criminal treatment of Black Americans. Perhaps I am just naïve, but as long as corporations like Bovis, John Galt and Breeze bend or break the law, they must be shunned. I will not forsake the ideals of my youth that were pumped into me by the teachers and journalists who never tired of reminding us how wonderful democracy and good government were. If their lectures turned me into the dirty commie that I am today, there’s not much I can do about that. It is the rulers who must be changed, not me. And that’s that.