Building foreman acquitted in deadly New York bank blaze

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 28, 2011 6:04 PM
Building foreman acquitted in deadly New York bank blaze

By Jessica Dye

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Manhattan jury on Tuesday cleared foreman Salvatore DePaola of charges that he should have known a crucial waterpipe was damaged in the former Deutsche Bank building at Ground Zero which caught fire in August 2007, killing two firefighters.

The jury was still deliberating the case of Jeffrey Melofchik, the building site safety manager, who like DePaola was charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the blaze.

Also charged are the building's toxin cleanup director Mitchell Alvo and the Galt Corp., the subcontractor that employed Alvo and DePaola. They have chosen to have Judge Rena Uviller, not the jury, rule on their cases and the judge has not yet ruled.

The jury found DePaola not guilty of all charges. It began deliberating on June 16.

Prosecutors at the trial, which began on March 21, in state Supreme Court in Manhattan argued that the supervisors knew that the water pipe was damaged but did nothing to fix it.

The former bank building had been damaged and contaminated by the attacks of September 11, 2001, and was being dismantled in August 2007 when fire broke out on the 17th floor.

Firefighters Robert Beddia, 53, and Joseph Graffagnino, 33, died of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning when they became trapped in the massive nine-floor fire.

The prosecution, which called 70 witnesses, argued 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.

More than 100 other firefighters sustained injuries in the blaze.

The defense argued that the construction managers removing asbestos could not have anticipated the circumstances that led to the firefighters' deaths.

They had argued 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 defense argued that the conditions were caused not by a lack of water but by a fan system that pulled smoke downward, leaving firefighters blind and disoriented.

"Water would not have helped in this case," said Edward Little, attorney for Melofchik, during the trial, adding that the fire represented a "horrible perfect storm."

"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."

(Additional reporting by Joseph Ax, editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Greg McCune)