Deutsche Bank fire deaths due to neglect, prosecutor says

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 15, 2011 7:43 PM
Deutsche Bank fire deaths due to neglect, prosecutor says

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two firefighters would be alive today if not for the reckless actions of a trio of construction supervisors at the former Deutsche Bank building in lower Manhattan, prosecutors told a jury on Wednesday.

Working under intense pressure to speed up removal of asbestos from the basement, the three men chose not to repair a broken water pipe, Assistant District Attorney Joel Seidemann said during his closing argument in the two-month-old trial at state Supreme Court in Manhattan.

The question, he told jurors, was simple: Did the firefighters die from a "perfect storm of terrible circumstances," as defense lawyer Edward Little claimed in his closing argument Tuesday? Or, he asked, "was it reckless crimes by greedy and highly irresponsible people who cut corners to make money and serve their own interest?"

The supervisors -- Mitchell Alvo, Salvatore DePaola and Jeffrey Melofchik -- face charges of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and reckless endangerment. The John Galt Corp, which employed Alvo and DePaola, is charged as well.

The defense argued Tuesday that the three men were convenient scapegoats for the failure of government inspectors and others to recognize the dangers present inside the skyscraper, which was damaged in the attacks of September 11, 2001. It was being dismantled in 2007 when the fire broke out.

Firefighters Joseph Graffagnino, 33, and Robert Beddia, 53, died when they became trapped on a smoke-filled floor.

Seidemann said the evidence proved that the broken standpipe robbed firefighters of crucial water needed to fight the blaze.

"Numerous firefighters have gotten on the stand and said, 'If we had water, we would have put this fire out,'" Seidemann said.

Defense lawyers claimed the men could not have been expected to know the significance of the pipe and added that the lack of water was a non-factor. Instead, they argued, features that were intended to contain the toxins in the building unexpectedly became obstacles, including an air system that they said spread smoke throughout several floors and stairwell barriers that impeded firefighters' progress.

Like the defense lawyers Tuesday, Seidemann called on the jury to use their "common sense." He pointed out that DePaola and Melofchik had decades of construction experience and said it was unreasonable to think they did not understand the importance of the water pipe.

"Now who's playing dumb?" he said. "Who's sticking their heads in the sand on that one?"

The jury could begin deliberations as soon as Thursday on the fate of Melofchik and DePaola. Alvo and the Galt Corp have chosen to let Judge Rena Uviller rule on their cases; she will hear closing arguments from their lawyers Monday.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Greg McCune)