Trial opens in deadly ground zero tower fire

AP News
Posted: Apr 04, 2011 7:41 PM
Trial opens in deadly ground zero tower fire

A blaze that killed two firefighters in a condemned ground zero skyscraper was fueled by recklessness and fanned by greed, a prosecutor said Monday as three construction-company supervisors went on trial on manslaughter charges.

Mitchel Alvo, Salvatore DePaola and Jeffrey Melofchik took a deadly chance with a crucial firefighting water pipe so they could speed up a lagging project as losses loomed, prosecutors told jurors in the only criminal case to arise from the August 2007 fire at the former Deutsche Bank building.

"This case is about risks, about risks the defendants created" and disregarded, Manhattan assistant district attorney Brian J. Fields told jurors and a judge in an opening statement. "They gambled with lives for money."

The men say they're being singled out for a disaster that revealed a legion of hazards and regulatory failures in a high-profile project that was supposed to be carefully managed. Their lawyers are scheduled to give their openings Tuesday; one has previously painted the case as "scapegoating a few defenseless people at the bottom of the line."

While jurors have yet to hear from defense lawyers, they got a more than five-hour preview Monday of a trial expected to last three months or more. Prosecutors drew a picture that spanned from the building's troubled history to the details of how fire hydrants are connected to pipes.

Contaminated with toxic debris in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, the 41-story former bank tower took years to dismantle in a painstaking process intended to keep toxins from escaping. The last of it was removed just this February.

The potential fire dangers were plenty, including high-powered torches melting metal to take the building down, plywood stairwell barriers that were meant to help contain toxins, and a sprinkler system knocked out in 9/11.

"The defendants knew that this building was, in essence, a deathtrap," Fields said.

The main firefighting tool was a water conduit, called a standpipe, that ran from the basement up through the building.

A basement stretch of the standpipe proved frustratingly difficult to scrub free of debris, slowing the project as cleanup and demolition contractor John Galt Corp. was looking at losing money on its $58.5 million, flat-fee share of the project, Fields said.

Alvo, the company's toxin-cleanup director, and DePaola _ a foreman who stood to get a $5,000 bonus if the basement passed an inspection on time _ had some of the standpipe's tough-to-clean supports cut down in November 2006, Fields said.

A thunderous clang brought Melofchik to the basement to find a full 42 feet of the pipe either on the floor or hanging precariously, prosecutors say. He was the site safety manager for general contractor Bovis Lend Lease.

The men decided to have the pipe cut up and carted away and do nothing to fix it or flag it, even as Melofchik continued to sign daily reports saying the building's fire-suppression system was working, Fields said.

Nine months later, a worker's careless smoking started a fire that ripped through nine floors of the building. With the standpipe useless, it took firefighters about an hour to get water on the flames, prosecutors say.

Surrounded by choking smoke, firefighters Robert Beddia, 53, and Joseph P. Graffagnino, 33, died on the 14th floor.

DePaola, Melofchik and Alvo say they didn't realize what the pipe was; it was their job to know, prosecutors say. The defendants also say the firefighters' lives were endangered by many other hazards in the building and many shortcomings by government agencies responsible for monitoring it.

After the deadly blaze, investigators found that the fire department, which was supposed to inspect the building every 15 days, hadn't done so in more than a year, investigators found. Building, environmental and labor inspectors didn't realize that the stairwell barriers hadn't been built to let firefighters get through.

The city and general contractor Bovis Lend Lease acknowledged mistakes. Bovis agreed to finance a $10 million memorial fund for slain firefighters' families, and the fire department created dozens of inspection and auditing jobs, among other responses.

But Fields said Monday that regulatory failures would amount to "a lot of noise" in a case that would come down to the defendants' "conscious decision to put profits over people."

If convicted, Melofchik, 49, DePaola, 56, and Alvo, 58, could face up to 15 years in prison. The Galt company, which also is charged, could face a $10,000 fine.

Alvo and the company have elected to have a judge decide their cases. She'll hear evidence simultaneously with the jury, which will render a verdict for DePaola and Melofchik.