An investigation into the death of a young girl struck by falling terracotta from an Upper West Side building has led to the arrest of a professional engineer for lying in an inspection report and to changes at the Department of Buildings, which the Department of Investigation said was failing to adequately enforce the city’s facade inspection law.
“There were wholesale breakdowns in enforcement of public safety from just about everyone,” DOI Commissioner Mark Peters told the Observer in a telephone interview.
The investigation stems from the May death of Greta Greene, a 2-year-old girl who was sitting on a bench with her grandmother outside the Esplanade, a senior citizen residential building, on West End Avenue when bricks and terracotta fell down from the building, killing the girl and injuring her grandmother. The report outlines multiple failures to catch dangerous conditions at the building—an engineer who signed off on a safety report without ever visiting the building; DOB employees who didn’t take action after an e-mail from a consultant inspecting a neighboring building who alerted the department to a “scary” crack in the building’s facade; bricks falling from the facade months before the fatal accident.
“We’ve got a licensed engineer who’s supposed to do the inspection and certify that the building is safe, who doesn’t do the inspection and just claims he did. We’ve got Department of Buildings employees who are warned the building is unsafe and failed to send an inspector out. We’ve got a landlord who has things fall off the building earlier and doesn’t notify the Department of Buildings as he’s supposed to,” Mr. Peters told the Observer. “If any of these people had done what they were supposed to do, we might have had a different outcome.”
The professional engineer, Masqsood Faruqi, 55, of Jackson, N.J., has been charged by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s office with one count of offering a false instrument for filing, a felony punishable by up to four years in prison.
The city’s Local Law 11 requires every building six stories or higher to have its facade inspected every five years. The Esplanade was inspected in 2000, when a professional engineer noted in the report that repairs were needed to prevent the facade from deteriorating before the next inspection in five years. But as of November 2007, the final deadline, the building had filed no follow-up report on its facade or whether it had made the repairs outlined in 2000, which were required to prevent the building from being deemed unsafe.
DOB’s Facades Unit issued a violation to the Esplanade, but according to the DOI report, “did not properly follow up when the Esplanade continually failed to file a report.” The department issued four violations between 2007 and 2011, but never conducted a field inspection of the site.
In 2008, the Esplanade hired a contractor, D&N, to do a facade inspection, and D&N subcontracted the job to workers who conducted some repairs to the facade, without reviewing the recommendations for repairs made in the 2000 report that might have fixed some outstanding problems. Mr. Faruqi, one of the subcontractors and the professional engineer who signed off on the report deeming the facade safe, had never even been to the building, investigators said, nor had he reviewed any of the building’s records, despite writing in his certified report that he had done both.
There were other missed opportunities to make repairs to the building before the accident, the report found. In March 2014, bricks fell from the building onto the sidewalk, but nobody in building management reported it to DOB, as they were required to do. In October 2014, a private building consultant inspecting a building across the street noticed a crack in the facade at the Esplanade, and emailed several DOB employees with a description and a photograph. In his first e-mail, he urged the DOB to “get someone over pretty quick,” and in a follow-up email, he noted the crack “looks scary.”
But DOB never conducted an inspection of the building, despite the warning. The DOB architect the consultant had emailed didn’t fill out a form requesting inspection, instead forwarding the email to a supervising inspector—who never even opened it, according to a DOI forensic analysis.
“Seven months later the building remained uninspected, and a piece of terracotta fell, killing two year old Greta Greene,” the DOI report reads.
In addition to missed opportunities at the Esplanade, the report also took a broader look at how the Department of Buildings enforces Local Law 11—and found the department ill-equipped to track building facade inspections or follow up when reports weren’t filed or were filed identifying unsafe conditions in the facade.
“Even after DOI reported these issues to DOB, the Buildings Department initially failed to expedite inspections,” the report reads. “Only after DOI informed the Mayor’s Office was prompt action taken.”
DOI’s review found that the Esplanade wasn’t alone in failing to inspect its facade on time: 1,400 buildings had failed to file any report on their facade by the close of the last reporting cycle, in February 2015—some two years after the Feburary 2013 deadline for those reports to be considered “timely” under the law. After the DOB issued an amnesty initiative, another 400 reports came in, leaving about 1,000 unfiled.
The Buildings Department eventually completed inspections for 541 of the 1,003 buildings that had not filed facade inspections—and issued violations to more than half of them, 247, for failing to keep their facades in safe condition. Of those 247 buildings, DOB determined that 14 required immediate repairs or safety sheds on sidewalks to keep pedestrians safe.
In addition to the buildings that hadn’t bothered to submit a report, the investigation also found problems with buildings that had inspected their facades—2,490 buildings filed reports that stated their facades had “unsafe” conditions, but DOB did little follow-up to ensure the conditions were fixed.
Four months after those 2,490 buildings had submitted those reports finding unsafe conditions, only 1,006—fewer than half—had filed follow-up reports to note the unsafe conditions were corrected. That left 1,484 buildings with outstanding reports of dangerous conditions, and an “inadequate protocol for inspect these unsafe filings,” DOI said in the report.
The DOB’s Facades Unit prioritized inspections at 153 of the 2,490 buildings with unsafe reports, issued violations to 113 of them, and required 40 to make immediate repairs or put up sidewalk sheds.
“The Buildings Department absolutely failed to effectively enforce the law,” Mr. Peters told the Observer. “They failed to insist that the building owners file the reports. They failed to insist that the building owners make the fixes. When we raised all this with City Hall, there was very swift action to remedy all the most dangerous situations.”
In a statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio said there was “no higher priority than protecting people’s safety” and commended the arrested of the engineer.
“This investigation has uncovered ways the City can more rapidly remedy the most dangerous situations, improve practices and, hopefully, prevent similar tragedies,” the statement read. “The City will ensure that property owners meet their obligation to keep their buildings safe.”
DOB has agreed to a slew of recommendations laid out by DOI, including the creation of a new system to track all Local Law 11 facade inspection reports. If a building doesn’t file a report, after 180 days the city will inspect the building itself and, if needed, put in safety measures and bill the landlord. Buildings reporting unsafe conditions will also be given 180 days to correct them before the city conducts an inspection and makes safety fixes.
The report from DOI comes as the city is experience an uptick in construction-related deaths, putting scrutiny on the Buildings Department. The department did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the Esplanade also did not immediately comment on the report.