An effort by New York City prosecutors to hold someone criminally responsible for the deaths of two firefighters during a blaze at a condemned ground zero skyscraper ended Wednesday when a judge acquitted a construction contractor of manslaughter and other charges, and said the company he worked for was guilty only of a misdemeanor.
Mitchel Alvo, 59, had been one of three supervisors charged in the 2007 blaze at the former Deutsche Bank building, which was heavily damaged in the Sept. 11 attacks and was being dismantled when it caught fire.
Two of those supervisors were previously acquitted by a jury. Alvo had opted to have his case decided separately by a judge, but Justice Rena Uviller reached the same conclusion, finding him not guilty of either manslaughter or the lesser charges of negligent homicide or reckless endangerment.
The judge found The John Galt Corp., the construction company that employed Alvo, guilty of reckless endangerment. It also faced manslaughter and homicide charges in the deaths of firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph P. Graffagnino.
Alvo quietly listened to the judge's verdict and was somber as he left the courthouse, accompanied by his weeping fiancee.
"Now I've just got to get on with my life and start making a living again," he said.
Galt Corp. attorney David Wikstrom said he would ask Uviller to reconsider the verdict against the company, which had been accused, along with the supervisors, of failing to address a severed standpipe in the building's basement that could have delivered water during the blaze.
Wikstrom said he was "mystified" that the company had been convicted, when its workers had all been absolved of criminal wrongdoing.
The judge will decide the company's punishment at a later date.
Sparked by careless smoking, the fire added yet another layer of tragedy to a site already steeped in death. It tore through nine floors of the former bank building, which was one of the last damaged towers around the World Trade Center site to be removed. Beddia, 53, and Graffagnino, 33, died after being trapped in thick smoke with no air left in their oxygen tanks.
Prosecutors said the firefighters might have lived if the standpipe had been functioning. They argued that because it was hobbled, firefighters struggled to get water on the flames for about an hour.
Defense lawyers acknowledged that their clients made mistakes, but said they didn't rise from malice or negligence. They said the men were dealing with a thicket of pipes in the building's basement and didn't realize the standpipe's importance. They also argued that other building hazards endangered firefighters far more than the lack of water, including plywood barriers in the stairwells and a fan system that ended up concentrating the smoke.
The Fire Department also hadn't inspected the building for more than a year, even though it was required to do so every 15 days.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said the case, initially brought by his predecessor, Robert Morgenthau, "raised consciousness and awareness about fire and building safety."
As a result of the investigation, the Fire Department created dozens of inspection and auditing jobs. Bovis agreed to finance a $10 million memorial fund for the slain firefighters families.
"The investigation and resulting agreements contributed to important reforms at city agencies, including the FDNY — changes that have undoubtedly saved lives," Vance said in a statement.
Alvo, fellow Galt employee Salvatore DePaola, 56, and site safety manager Jeffrey Melofchik, 49, who worked for general contractor Bovis Lend Lease, were the only people criminally charged in the fire. Galt was the only company charged.
After Wednesday's verdict, leaders of the city's two firefighting unions dismissed the prosecutions and said the true culprits in the blaze have never been brought to justice.
"Key city agencies responsible for the oversight of this building should have been indicted," said Steve Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association. "The verdict confirms our long held belief that the wrong people were on trial."
Alexander Hagan, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, said the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which owned the building, "deliberately sacrificed safety for speed." He called for a new investigation into the fire.