Crane Owner's Trial Opens in Deadly NYC Collapse

Prosecutors allege James Lomma pinched pennies on a crucial repair job that failed and caused the collapse.

By Jennifer Peltz
|  Tuesday, Feb 21, 2012  |  Updated 4:27 PM EDT
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A money-hungry construction crane owner's decision to skimp on a vital repair job led to a collapse that killed two workers, a prosecutor said Tuesday as the owner went on trial in a manslaughter case he says is casting the 2008 accident as a crime.

"They were killed because of one man's greed," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eli Cherkasky said in his opening statement in James Lomma's trial. "They were killed because one man valued his own profit over the safety of others."

But Lomma's lawyers said investigators and prosecutors were so focused on the broken weld that they misunderstood it: It was a consequence of the collapse, not the cause, the defense said.

"The government saw what they wanted to see and ignored everything else," defense lawyer James Kim said in his opening statement. "... They missed the actual cause of the action because they had blinders on."

Prosecutors say Lomma pinched pennies on a crucial repair job that failed and caused the collapse, but the defense says Lomma acted responsibly in getting the repair done. It says expert witnesses have concluded the crane fell apart because it was pulled too high — not because the repaired part failed.

"What our experts say is that the weld was not the cause of this collapse," defense lawyer Paul Shechtman told a judge during legal arguments before the openings Tuesday. Lomma and his companies, New York Crane & Equipment Corp. and J. F. Lomma Inc., have chosen to have a judge decide the verdict, instead of a jury.

The accident happened two months after another Manhattan crane collapse killed seven people, and the incidents together prompted scrutiny of crane safety here and in other American cities.

For the Manhattan DA's office, Lomma's trial is a second attempt to hold someone criminally responsible for the two crane collapses, which stoked anxieties about construction oversight in a city that had been in a building boom. A crane rigger was acquitted of manslaughter and all other charges in the earlier collapse.

For Lomma, the trial represents a chance to try to clear himself with a two-part defense outlined in court documents — that he acted responsibly in getting the repair done and inspected, and that the crane fell apart because it was pulled up too high, not because the repaired part failed.

"New York Crane is looking forward to a trial at which it will be shown that what occurred was a tragic accident, and not a crime," Shechtman, who represents the companies, said Friday.

The 200-foot-tall crane was starting work on the 14th floor of what was to be a 32-story apartment building when the top portions of the rig snapped off, crashed into a building across the street and plummeted to the ground. Donald C. Leo, 30, a second-generation crane operator who was two weeks from marrying his fiancée, was in the crane's cab and was almost decapitated when it fell, Cherkasky said. On the ground, a sewer company worker, Ramadan Kurtaj, 27, was crushed in the rubble and died hours after being pulled out. A third construction worker, Simeon Alexis, was seriously injured.

The victims' relatives lined rows in a crowded courtroom Tuesday to see Lomma's trial start.

"I hope that the law takes him into the right hands, where he belongs," Kurtaj's father, Uke Kurtaj of Peja, Kosovo, said outside court through an Albanian-language translator. "If you knew ahead of time that the crane could have collapsed, that was as if you went in there and killed (my son) yourself."

Prosecutors say the culprit in the collapse was a bad weld in the crane's turntable, a critical component that lets the upper parts of the rig swivel.

Lomma and mechanic Tibor Varganyi got estimates from known manufacturers but instead arranged for a cheap welding job to replace a critical component in the crane, prosecutors say. The two hired an obscure Chinese company over the Internet to do the work and failed to take steps to ensure the repair was sound — even after a company representative warned in an email that "we don't have confidence on this welding," prosecutors said. The representative later said the company "could do this."

After a month of use, the weld failed, investigators found.

Varganyi, 65, has pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide. He's set for sentencing in April and could be spared jail time if he testifies, as expected, against Lomma, 66.

If convicted, Lomma could face up to 15 years in prison.

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