1 Acquitted in Fatal Deutsche Bank Fire

Wednesday, Jun 29, 2011  |  Updated 7:05 AM EDT
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A fire that claimed the lives of two firefighters burns in the former Deutsche Bank office building in New York on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2007.

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An asbestos-cleanup foreman who said he was a scapegoat for inspectors' failures was acquitted of manslaughter and all other charges Tuesday in a blaze that killed two firefighters at a ground zero bank tower.

Two other construction-company supervisors were still awaiting verdicts in the sole criminal trial stemming from the blaze at the toxic, condemned building.

"I haven't slept in four years," Salvatore DePaola said, his eyes moist, as he left the courtroom after a nearly three-month trial stemming from the August 2007 fire at the former Deutsche Bank building.

After seven days of deliberations, jurors were still debating manslaughter and other charges against co-defendant Jeffrey Melofchik. A judge is weighing the charges against a third defendant, Mitchel Alvo, and the John Galt Co., which employed him and DePaola. The company and Alvo chose to forego the jury.

Sparked by a worker's careless smoking, the blaze revealed a slate of regulatory failures at the building, which was being taken down after being damaged and contaminated with toxic debris in the Sept. 11 attacks. Government agencies and a different company admitted mistakes, but no others were criminally charged.

"There are people who didn't do their jobs, and they should have been up here," said DePaola, pointing a finger at high-ranking Fire Department officials. The department was supposed to inspect the former bank building every 15 days but hadn't done so for more than a year before the blaze ripped through nine stories.

Firefighters Robert Beddia, 53, and Joseph P. Graffagnino, 33, died after being trapped in black, choking smoke and running out of air in their oxygen tanks.

Prosecutors said the break in the firefighting pipe, called a standpipe, was the crucial factor in their deaths. With the standpipe useless, it took firefighters about an hour to get water on the flames, letting the blaze build into a lethal inferno, prosecutors said.

They said Alvo, DePaola and Melofchik knew the pipe had broken about eight months before, when workers took down some braces that were holding it to the basement ceiling. Melofchik, 49, was the project's site safety supervisor. Alvo, 59, was a toxin-cleanup director.

The supports were proving stubbornly hard to scrub of asbestos, and the bosses were under pressure to speed the cleanup to keep it from going over budget, prosecutors said.

So after the break, the men had a 42-foot section of standpipe cut up and carted away and did nothing to repair or flag it, though Melofchik continued to sign daily reports saying the building's fire-suppression system was working, prosecutors said.

"They did the thing that killed those firefighters," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joel Seidemann told jurors in a closing argument. "The evidence ... woven together, paints a mosaic of overwhelming guilt — that but for these wholly reckless acts, these firefighters would be alive today."

But defense lawyers said the men didn't recognize the pipe's importance. DePaola, who didn't testify, said Tuesday he had "no idea" it was a standpipe, as it looked like many other pipes in the basement.

"My job was to make sure everything in the area was clean," he said. "I had no jurisdiction over cutting pipes."

The fire was a product of a web of shortsighted regulating and hazards beyond the defendants' control, their lawyers said.

"It's a tragedy — two great firefighters died, but as we saw, and as jurors clearly saw, Sal wasn't responsible for that," said his lawyer, Rick J. Pasacreta.

While the Fire Department missed inspections, building, environmental and labor inspectors hadn't realized that some measures meant to contain toxins could thwart firefighting. Plywood stairwell barriers slowed firefighters' progress, and a fan system kept smoke in and pulled it down, instead of letting it rise and escape.

The city and Melofchik's employer, general contractor Bovis Lend Lease, acknowledged errors. In response, the Fire Department created dozens of inspection and auditing jobs, and Bovis agreed to finance a $10 million memorial fund for slain firefighters' families, among other responses.

Then-DA Robert Morgenthau said it would have been fruitless to try to prosecute the city because of a legal doctrine that generally makes governments immune from criminal prosecution, though individual officials and employees sometimes are charged with crimes.

To Graffagnino's father, the trial has fallen short from the start. Joseph A. Graffagnino considers the defendants small players in a series of fateful mistakes at the building and thinks government officials and Bovis should also have been prosecuted.

"Having this guy (DePaola) declared not guilty, it doesn't do anything for us. It doesn't do anything against us," said Graffagnino, whose family has not attended the trial. "We feel that it's a much bigger case."

A lawyer for Beddia's family didn't immediately return a call Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the building lingered for almost a decade as a grim reminder of the attacks. The last of it was finally removed in February.

If convicted, Alvo and Melofchik could face up to 15 years in prison, and the Galt company could face a $10,000 fine.

DePaola, 56, said he had been unable to work while the case played out; he, too, had faced the possibility of up to 15 years in prison. He said he now might open a deli, like the one he ran before getting into the asbestos-cleanup business.

"I think I'm going to get away from construction," he said, "because a lot of bad things can happen in construction."

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