Deutsche Bank fire trial defense close: blaze unforeseeable

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 14, 2011 1:23 PM
Deutsche Bank fire trial defense close: blaze unforeseeable

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two New York City firefighters died in a "horrible perfect storm" that engulfed the Deutsche Bank building in flames in 2007, said a defense lawyer for one of the three construction supervisors on trial for manslaughter.

Edward Little, attorney for supervisor Jeffrey Melofchik, began his closing argument on Tuesday at state Supreme Court in Manhattan, commencing the final chapter of a trial that has lasted more than two months with more than 70 witnesses and 1,100 exhibits.

"The deaths of these two firefighters, Bob Beddia and Joe Graffagnino, were terrible, were tragic and were heartbreaking," Little said.

"But not every tragic accident has someone who committed a negligent act. Not every tragic accident has somebody who committed a crime behind it," he said.

The skyscraper, heavily damaged and contaminated in the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, was being dismantled when a powerful fire broke out on the 17th floor, drawing hundreds of firefighters to Ground Zero in an effort to extinguish the flames.

Beddia, 53, and Graffagnino, 33, were killed by smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning. Another 115 firefighters suffered injuries, many severe enough to force them to take medical leave.

Prosecutors argued that the supervisors -- Melofchik, Mitchell Alvo and Salvatore dePaola, who oversaw an asbestos abatement project in the building -- knew that a crucial water standpipe in the basement had been damaged and was never replaced, essentially cutting off the water supply to the building.

"SCAPEGOATS"

The defense, which called only one witness, argued that the pipe was not a direct cause of the deaths and that their clients are scapegoats. The company hired to complete the abatement, John Galt Corp., is also charged.

Little described a chaotic scene inside the skyscraper, with smoke limiting visibility and causing confusion for firefighters who did not realize the extent of the fire's spread.

"Water would not have helped in this case," he said.

Instead, he argued, the building's air system -- a network of fans that circulated air inside the building -- was the major contributing factor.

The defense has pointed out the litany of inspections that failed to identify potential dangers and argued the defendants could not be expected to have foreseen what government inspectors did not.

"Nobody foresaw this bizarre set of circumstances," Little said on Tuesday.

DePaola and Melofchik will have their fates decided by the jury. Alvo and the Galt Corp. have chosen to have Judge Rena Uviller rule on their case, rather than the jury.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Jesse Wegman and Barbara Goldberg)