Jury choice starts in ground zero tower fire case

AP News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 3:33 PM
Jury choice starts in ground zero tower fire case

A manslaughter trial surrounding two firefighters' deaths in a blaze at a condemned ground zero skyscraper is expected to take about four months, a judge said as jury selection began Monday.

A construction company foreman, two supervisors and a company that employed two of the men have pleaded not guilty in the only criminal case arising from the August 2007 fire at the former Deutsche Bank building.

"This is going to be a complex trial. I believe it is going to be an interesting case," Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Rena K. Uviller told prospective jurors. Choosing them could take a week or more.

The jury will decide the fate of only half the defendants, since two _ John Galt Corp. and Mitchel Alvo _ have opted to have their cases decided by the judge. She and jurors will hear evidence in a single trial, and jurors will render a verdict for defendants Salvatore DePaola and Jeffrey Melofchik.

Prosecutors say the men knew about and concealed a major break in a crucial firefighting water conduit called a standpipe, turning the building into a deadly inferno. The men say they're scapegoats for regulators' failures and a host of hazards in the troubled tower.

Dusted with toxic debris from the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the building was in the process of being dismantled when the fire broke out.

Firefighters were confronted with a welter of perils, including blocked stairwells and an air system that was meant to keep toxins in but ended up concentrating smoke. And the broken standpipe kept them from getting water to the burning floors for about an hour, authorities said.

Firefighters Robert Beddia, 53, and Joseph P. Graffagnino, 33, were surrounded by choking smoke and died on the building's 14th floor.

Investigators pointed to a litany of shortcomings on the part of government agencies and the project's general contractor, but they weren't criminally charged. The city and the general contractor, Bovis Lend Lease, acknowledged mistakes and agreed to take various steps in response.

Melofchik, 49, was Bovis' site safety manager. Alvo, 58, was the asbestos-cleanup director for Galt, a subcontractor. DePaola, 56, was a Galt asbestos-removal foreman.

If convicted, the men could face up to 15 years in prison, and the company could face a $10,000 fine.

The last of the 41-story bank building was removed last month. Preparations are under way to start turning it into a facility that will screen vehicles to enter the new trade center's parking garage.