Judge clears final Deutsche Bank fire defendants

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 06, 2011 11:54 AM
Judge clears final Deutsche Bank fire defendants

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A judge on Wednesday acquitted the final two defendants of almost all charges stemming from a 2007 fire at the former Deutsche Bank building at Ground Zero which killed two firefighters.

Judge Rena Uviller of state Supreme Court in Manhattan found the building's toxin-cleanup director, Mitchell Alvo, not guilty on all charges, and Alvo's employer, John Galt Corp, not guilty of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide but guilty of second-degree reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor.

After the verdict, Alvo said, "It was a just verdict. I just want to get on with my life."

The verdicts come days after a jury cleared two construction managers on charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the same case. The jury deliberated almost two weeks over the fate of construction foreman Salvatore DePaola and Jeffrey Melofchik, the building site safety manager.

Alvo and Galt Corp chose to have Uviller, not the jury, rule on their cases.

The former bank building in downtown Manhattan 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 blaze.

Prosecutors at the trial, which began on March 21, argued that the supervisors knew that the building's water pipe was damaged but did nothing to fix it.

The prosecution argued the two firefighters could have survived had water been able to reach the upper floors, where black smoke became so thick visibility dropped to zero.

More than 100 other firefighters were injured.

The defense argued that if government inspectors had repeatedly failed to identify a damaged water pipe, it was unreasonable to expect construction supervisors with less expertise to recognize the potential danger.

The defense claimed 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."

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said in a statement following the verdicts that the case had "raised consciousness and awareness about fire and building safety."

"The investigation and resulting agreements contributed to important reforms at city agencies, including the Fire Department of New York -- changes that have undoubtedly saved lives," Vance said.

(Additional reporting by Bernd Debusmann Jr., editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Peter Bohan)