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Firefighters radioed distress in N.Y. blaze

Messages offered terrifying glimpse

Onlookers gathered at the building in New York yesterday where investigators continued to investigate a deadly blaze. Onlookers gathered at the building in New York yesterday where investigators continued to investigate a deadly blaze. (bebeto matthews/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

NEW YORK -- Firefighters who responded to a blaze that claimed two of their own in a condemned skyscraper next to the World Trade Center site radioed that they were running out of air and "really taking a beating," according to transcripts.

There was a series of unforeseen complications after flames broke out Saturday night: The building's main water supply failed, demolition work made the fire on the 17th floor difficult to reach, and the structure was thought to pose health risks because of toxic debris from the trade center collapse.

Excerpts of radio transmissions from firefighters at the scene, published in the Daily News, offered a terrifying glimpse of what happened just before two firefighters died at the former Deutsche Bank building.

A firefighter on the 14th floor can be heard saying "We're out of air." A second on the same floor says: "It's starting to get bad up here. We've got to force our way." And then, a third voice from the 15th floor: "We're all running low on air and we're really taking a beating up here on 15 . . ."

The city Buildings Department issued an order yesterday that officially halted all work at the site, except for repairs needed to keep the building safe after the damage from Saturday's blaze.

The building, damaged by falling wreckage from the collapsing trade center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, has been largely gutted and is being dismantled, reduced from its former 40-story height to 26 stories as crews take apart its steel skeleton.

Before the fire, the project had received a number of citations from city building inspectors for complaints including falling debris and excessive amounts of combustible debris and plywood stacked around the site.

Just weeks ago, buildings inspectors found that cutting torch work being performed on the 28th floor was causing sparks to rain down near combustible material, though that was ruled out as a cause of the weekend fire, because crews were not working with torches then.

The city also had ordered contractors to stop work until permits were renewed for storing hazardous material and compressed gases. Work was allowed to proceed on Aug. 15 after a permit was updated.

The cause of the fire remained under investigation; officials have said they believe it was not electrical but have not determined whether it was accidental.

Fire marshals have been questioning witnesses, including the elevator operator who reported the blaze.

Investigators hoped to learn more in interviews with dozens of construction workers who have been on site.

They also were interested in graffiti on a work shed that referred to a burning building, authorities said.

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