Trial to open in deadly blaze at ground zero tower

AP News
Posted: Apr 04, 2011 3:13 AM
Trial to open in deadly blaze at ground zero tower

The troubling story of a blaze that killed two firefighters in a toxic ground zero skyscraper has been recounted in multiple investigations and countless news stories. Now it's about to be told to a jury.

Opening statements were set for Monday in the manslaughter trial of three construction-company supervisors and a firm involved in work at the now-gone Deutsche Bank building.

They are the only people and entities criminally charged in the August 2007 fire, though prosecutors said a litany of regulators' oversights helped create deadly conditions.

Contaminated with toxic debris in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, the tower was being painstakingly dismantled when a worker's careless smoking started a fire that ultimately ripped through nine floors of the shrouded, cluttered building.

While the blaze raged, firefighters were unable to get water to the burning floors for about an hour because a crucial water pipe broken months before in the basement, authorities said.

Defendants Mitchel Alvo, Jeffrey Melofchik and Salvatore DePaola had been there when the pipe broke, let the 42-foot-long breach go unfixed and even took steps to conceal it, prosecutors say.

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

DePaola, Melofchik and Alvo say they didn't realize what the pipe was, and the firefighters' lives were endangered by many other hazards in the building. Mostly, they say they're small-time scapegoats for a fire fueled by others' mistakes.

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 stairwell barriers meant to contain toxins 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.

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

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 after a trial expected to last three months or more.

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 in February.