Engineers Warned Landmarks Commission Salvaging a Synagogue Would Be Dangerous. Then a Worker Got Crushed to Death.
A fatal collapse at burned-out Beth Hamedrash happened after the city’s preservation panel forced rebuilding, over its own expert’s objections.
Just before 10 a.m. on Oct. 21, 2019, the sound of a thunderclap followed by screams erupted from 60 Norfolk St. in the Lower East Side. An unstable brick wall of a synagogue ruined by fire had just collapsed on top of two laborers working at the site.
Stanislaw Supinski, 62, was crushed to death. His co-worker, Waldemar Klimaszewski, 56, was seriously injured.
At first it appeared the accident was a shock to all concerned — until records surfaced revealing that city bureaucrats had rejected multiple dire warnings red-flagging all the walls at that site as potential hazards to workers and the public.
A review of those records by THE CITY places the city Landmarks Preservation Commission at the center of the incident.
The commission required as much of the synagogue’s fragile facade as possible to be preserved, despite the recommendation from two engineering firms — including the commission’s own — that the entire structure be demolished.
The engineer and the demolition firm hired by the synagogue both repeatedly pushed the city Department of Buildings (DOB) to override Landmarks’ directive and order total demolition, but DOB rejected that position until after the fatal collapse.
In a deposition, an engineer for the synagogue said that four months before the accident, the general counsel for the landmarks commission had “instructed” him not to again bring up his recommendation for a full demolition so as not to “offend” the commissioners who were insisting that parts of the deteriorating building must be retained.
Representatives of Supinski’s family say the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) is partly to blame for the tragedy.
“The landmark commission was not created to kill people,” said Slawomir Platta, founding attorney of the law firm hired by Supinski’s family to press its case. “It was created to preserve architectural history, but not at a cost to human life. In many cases I think they put preservation over people’s lives.
“This is a perfect example where they should have let this structure be demolished rather than let portions of the structure remain. In his case it cost my client’s life.”
Daniel Colasuonno, CEO of Titan Industrial, the demolition firm that had repeatedly called for fully tearing down the synagogue remnants, made his anger about what happened crystal clear in a deposition that’s part of a pending lawsuit from Klimaszewski.
“This wall had been standing there … for over a year at the direction of the landmarks commission,” Colasuonno said, adding that both he and an engineer hired by the synagogue “had expressed this problem to them and they fought it. Unfortunately not until somebody lost their life and somebody got hurt did everybody back off.”
Fire on the Altar
THE CITY reviewed hundreds of pages of depositions, correspondence and internal engineering reports to examine what role the LPC’s insistence on keeping part of the synagogue walls intact may have played in the death of one man and serious injury to another.
Details of the behind-the-scenes conflict preceding the fatal accident emerge in the lawsuit Klimaszewkski’s lawyers filed in 2019. In April of this year, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Peter Sweeney approved a judgment against the synagogue and the contractors involved in the incident. That judgment is currently under appeal.
The chronology leading up to the catastrophe starts in the pre-dawn hours of May 14, 2017, when a fire broke out that destroyed the already abandoned Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue on Norfolk Street. The FDNY ultimately ruled the fire was set deliberately, likely by teenagers seen on video fleeing the scene.
The building, originally built in 1850 as a Baptist church, was purchased by the Orthodox Jewish congregation of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol in 1885. It closed in 2007 due to declining attendance, and was in disuse for a decade when the fire erupted in 2017.
The fire did significant damage, burning out the roof and leaving the skeletal remains of the structure and several walls standing without proper support. Because of the building’s age and the fact that LPC had designated the building a landmark in the 1970s, a debate then emerged about whether a portion of the building could be kept intact.
The Department of Buildings dubbed the fire-gutted structure “unstable” but did not order an immediate full demolition, instead ordering the owner to erect a safety zone around the perimeter to keep passersby far enough away from a potential wall collapse.
In an August 2017 letter, William Neeley, deputy director of preservation at LPC, notified the synagogue that the LPC board had approved partial demolition, but emphasized “that only selective demolition be done carefully to minimize the amount of material that must be removed and shall continue only to the point where it is feasible to stabilize the facades.”
The board required that “significant architectural features and finished material be salvaged where feasible,” and said the partial demolition would be “closely monitored on site” by an engineer hired by the commission.
Demolition work began in December 2017. That month, an engineering firm hired by the synagogue, Domani Technical Design Services, recommended to their client that “the building should be demolished in full.”
In advising for total demolition, Domani pointed out that the firm the LPC brought in to examine the project — Superstructures Engineers & Architects — had itself recommended a total teardown.
Domani attached a July 7, 2017 letter from Darsh Shah, a senior associate at Superstructures, to LPC Deputy Counsel John Weiss advising the commission that after visiting the site, he felt that the poor condition of the remaining walls made clear the need “to demolish the remaining building in full.”
Demolition was then paused while all parties tried to address the Landmarks Commission’s continued insistence that at least some of the building be retained.
The commission, for example, wanted to preserve a 36-foot-tall tower on the south exposure because it included a window frame with specific architectural significance.
LPC’s engineering firm, Superstructures, then abandoned its initial advice to move to full demolition and instead pressed to keep parts of the ruined synagogue intact, according to James Patterson, an engineer with Ancora Engineering, the firm that took over Domani’s contract with the synagogue.
In his sworn deposition, Patterson recalled a March 2018 conversation he had with a Superstructures engineer that laid out LPC’s unyielding position against full demolition:
“I wanted to continue demolition. He wanted to stop it,” said Patterson. “Because he was representing LPC and in the interest of LPC, he wanted to salvage the South tower at a height that would help him maintain and keep that window opening.”
THE CITY asked Shah whether anyone at LPC had ordered Superstructures to change its advice from full demolition to partial demolition. He declined to comment.
The commission’s insistence on partial demolition was again called into question by a November 2018 “feasibility report” by Ancora after it re-examined the building and again called for full demolition to avoid disaster.
“We believe that the structure, including the south tower, is in a state of disrepair and has deteriorated to a state beyond its usable life,” Patterson wrote, noting that the south tower presented “a high risk of safety” to both the public and workers.
Court records show that the demolition company, Titan Industrial Services, contended that bracing any of the walls was impossible because it would require securing support beams on shifting piles of debris left over by the fire. Removing that debris, they noted, would put workers potentially next to the walls and in harm’s way.
Patterson of Ancora said both the Landmarks Commission and the Buildings Department were aware the walls were not braced.
“They were given the reports. They knew the conditions. They knew we wanted to continue demolition of the buildings,” he said. “Rather than do [bracing], we left the walls as they were, hoping that LPC would see the light and let demolition continue.”
Some of the 11 members of the LPC agreed that the building was a potential hazard, but others contended that it was important that the commission recognize and commemorate what once stood at the site.
“It’s typically mandated by the Department of Buildings to take the structure down, but in this case they had their hands tied because of the Landmarks Commission,” Colasuonno, of Titan Industrial, said in a deposition.
Colasuonno recalled a phone conversation he had with the DOB official overseeing the site, Timothy Lynch, asking him, “Why are we even messing with this the way we are? The building is in bad shape. It should just come down in its entirety mechanically.”
In his deposition, Colasuonno said Lynch had agreed with him that the entire structure needed to come down, but that DOB ultimately acquiesced to Landmarks’ insistence that some of the building could be retained.
“In my conversations with the Department of Buildings, they felt, but they couldn’t come out and say it, that the building should come down,” he said. “Because there was political strife, argument, between one agency, the Landmarks Commission, and DOB, nobody wanted to come out and say it.”
Andrew Rudansky, a spokesperson for the Buildings Department, did not respond to THE CITY’s question about whether at any point Lynch had recommended full demolition. He said DOB never specifically issued a formal order requiring that.
The synagogue’s engineer, Patterson, said in his deposition, “There was no point in the work where I thought the structure could be salvaged. The LPC was the agency stopping the [demolition] work and pausing it. It wasn’t stopped and paused on my requirement.
“My professional choice was to continue demolition, but that was stopped by LPC,” he added.
The conflict came to a turning point at a June 2019 commission meeting to approve a new plan for partial demolition. Patterson says he planned to again tell the LPC full demolition was necessary but that the commission’s general counsel, Mark Silberman, told him not to bring it up.
“I was instructed not to bring up full demolition of the building … so as not to push the request beyond, you know, to offend the LPC board,” Patterson said. He acquiesced to Silberman’s command and kept his recommendation to himself, he said.
Courtney Clark Metakis, a spokesperson for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, denied that any employee or board member told the LPC-hired engineer Superstructures to change its advice from full demolition to partial demolition.
“LPC frequently contracts with external engineering firms who may advise the Commission during the application and approval process for a specific site and ultimately issue independent recommendations based on their findings and expertise,” Metakis said.
She declined to comment on whether Silberman had “instructed” Patterson not to bring up full demolition again to the board.
“LPC does not comment on information from a pending litigation between private parties and where LPC is not involved, but the condition of the building and all consultant recommendations were fully presented and considered by the full Commission as they approved additional demolition at each public meeting,” she said.
Asked to explain why the board insisted on preserving the unstable walls of the fire-gutted structure, she responded, “The fatal wall collapse at 60 Norfolk Street was a terrible tragedy, and a reminder of the ongoing importance of safety on work sites for New York City’s vulnerable buildings and landmarks. In the case of 60 Norfolk Street, LPC issued several permits for the site allowing for demolition to a structurally safe level, highlighting the importance of safety and vigilance in conducting the work while determining if any significant historic fabric could be preserved.”
In July 2019 the Department of Buildings signed off on LPC’s plan and workers began clearing the site of asbestos in preparation for partial demolition approved by the commission.
Four months later Supinski and Klimaszewski, employees of asbestos contractor PAL Environmental, were hosing down the site as nearby heavy machinery operated by a Titan employee pulled up debris and dumped it in containers. They were standing right next to one of the unstable walls.
Around 9:40 a.m., as Klimaszewski later recalled in a deposition, he heard a loud bang and felt the concrete floor he was standing on begin to shake.
“We started running, or at least I was running,” he said. “As far as I could get away from the wall. I went straight. I got hit in the head, in the back of my neck. And my back and then my legs got blocked. I could not run anymore.”
Firefighters pulled Klimaszewski out from under a pile of rubble. He was in pain all over. He stayed at Bellevue hospital for two weeks, followed by two weeks of rehab and then surgery to insert a disc in his spine.
His colleague Supinski was crushed to death.
Safety inspectors with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) later determined that PAL Environmental “had not provided instruction to [them] on the weakened condition of the wall and the need to remain away from the area,” records show.
And OSHA found that the demolition contractor, Titan, had not properly inspected the job site “to ensure employees were not working in hazardous areas” or “take any measures to prevent employees from being exposed to the ‘crush by’ hazard.”
OSHA issued more than $300,000 in sanctions against the two contractors: $146,948 in penalties to Titan and $161,925 in penalties to PAL. In January 2022, Titan paid $65,000 to settle with OSHA; PAL did the same with a $20,000 check.
After the Norfolk Street accident, the DOB immediately reversed its position and signed off on immediate and full demolition of the entire site — a switch that enraged Colasuonno of Titan.
“That decision wasn’t made until after the accident,” Colasuonno said in his deposition. “I had conversations with the Department of Buildings high level officials that now that we, excuse my language, fucked with the building all these two years, and it should have come down in the beginning and someone lost their life and got hurt — I’m taking the building down.
“And nobody objected at that point,” he added. “But it took somebody to get hurt, to lose their life, for Landmarks to back off.”
DOB spokesperson Rudansky said site safety “is the legal responsibility of the general contractor. Since DOB cannot have staff at every job site in the city around the clock, it is the contractor’s responsibility to ensure that the workers on their site are following the approved construction plans and complying with all applicable safety regulations.”
In April Judge Sweeney dismissed all accusations against Ancora but allowed some to go forward against the synagogue, Titan and PAL. Synagogue leadership — which has appealed Sweeney’s ruling — declined to comment for this article. Lawyers for Titan and PAL did not return calls. A lawyer for Ancora declined comment.
In his deposition, Klimaszewski said he has graduated from a wheelchair to walking with two canes to walking with one cane. He can no longer play soccer and is considering knee surgery for pain that will not go away.
Meanwhile a 16-story affordable housing tower serving seniors has risen on the site. The brand-new building, expected to open by year’s end, will include a 4,000-square-foot congregation and cultural heritage center serving the congregants of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.