Deutsche Bank fire trial defense: blaze unforeseeable

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 14, 2011 8:28 PM
Deutsche Bank fire trial defense: blaze unforeseeable

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Three construction managers removing asbestos from the former Deutsche Bank building at ground zero in Manhattan could not have anticipated unusual circumstances that led to the deaths of two firefighters during a 2007 blaze, defense lawyers said on Tuesday.

Prosecutors at a 10-week old manslaughter trial have argued that Salvatore DePaola and two other supervisors -- Jeffrey Melofchik, the building site safety manager, and Mitchell Alvo, the toxin cleanup director -- knew that a crucial water standpipe was damaged but did nothing to fix it.

The former bank building was damaged and contaminated by the attacks of September 11, 2001, and was in the process of being dismantled in August 2007 when the powerful fire broke out on the 17th floor, drawing hundreds of firefighters to lower Manhattan in an effort to extinguish the flames.

Robert Beddia, 53, and Joseph Graffagnino, 33, died of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning when they became trapped inside the skyscraper. More than 100 other firefighters sustained injuries in the blaze.

On Tuesday defense lawyers at state Supreme Court in Manhattan asked the jury to use "common sense," arguing that if government inspectors had repeatedly failed to identify a damaged water pipe in the basement it was unreasonable to expect construction supervisors with less expertise to recognize the potential danger.

The inspectors "didn't see any issue, and yet Sal, the abatement guy, should have seen an issue?" said Rick Pasacreta, the lawyer for the asbestos removal foreman DePaola.

The prosecution, which called 70 witnesses, has said the two firefighters could have survived had water been able to reach the upper floors, where black smoke became so thick that visibility dropped to zero.

But that condition, defense lawyers argued, was caused not by a lack of water but by a fan system that pulled smoke downward, leaving firefighters blind and disoriented.

The defense relied on cross-examination and a single expert witness to make its case.

"Water would not have helped in this case," said Edward Little of Hughes, Hubbard & Reed, the lawyer for Melofchik, adding that the fire represented a "horrible perfect storm."

Little repeated several times the distinction between civil negligence and criminal liability, which requires a higher standard of proof.

"The deaths of these two firefighters, Bob Beddia and Joe Graffagnino, were terrible, were tragic and were heartbreaking," he said. "But not every tragic accident has somebody who committed a crime behind it."

DePaola and Melofchik will have their verdict decided by the jury, which is expected to receive its instructions from Judge Rena Uviller on Thursday.

Alvo and the Galt Corp., the subcontractor that employed Alvo and DePaola and is also charged, chose to have Uviller rule on their cases, rather than the jury.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax. Editing by Peter Bohan)