Deutsche Bank Fire Fueled by Many Problems: Lawyer

Defense attorney gives opening statement.

Tuesday, Apr 5, 2011  |  Updated 5:02 PM 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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After two firefighters died in a blaze in a condemned ground zero tower, authorities pointed to a roster of regulatory failures, from inspections that weren't done to hazards that weren't recognized.

But prosecutors assigned blame where it doesn't belong by charging three construction supervisors and a company with manslaughter in the fire at the former Deutsche Bank building, defense lawyers told jurors and a judge Tuesday.

"This is a case about the tragic death of two firefighters, but it's also about the failure of government agencies and the subsequent, tragic attempt to shift blame by those agencies," attorney Rick Pasacreta said in an opening statement.

"The deaths resulted not in a search for truth but in a desperate search for scapegoats," said Pasacreta, who represents asbestos-cleanup foreman Salvatore DePaola. "Someone had to be blamed, but it wasn't going to be anyone in power."

Prosecutors say DePaola, Mitchel Alvo, Jeffrey Melofchik and the John Galt Corp. are directly responsible for the firefighters' deaths, even if government agencies' oversights contributed to the perilous conditions at the former bank building. The men and company were working to clean and dismantle the skyscraper, which had been coated with toxic debris in the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

To avoid costly delays, the men disabled and failed to fix a tough-to-clean but vital water conduit called a standpipe, and the lack of water let the August 2007 blaze become a deadly inferno, prosecutors say. Firefighters Robert Beddia, 53, and Joseph P. Graffagnino, 33, died after being trapped in intense, blinding smoke that built up because firefighters couldn't get water on the flames for more than an hour, prosecutors say.

"This is a case about reckless crimes,'' Manhattan assistant district attorney Brian J. Fields told jurors Monday. The defendants, he said, "gambled with lives for money."

Defense lawyers say the men didn't recognize the pipe's function and contest prosecutors' argument that it was their job to protect it. Alvo was Galt's toxin-cleanup director; DePaola was a foreman; Melofchik was the site safety manager for general contractor Bovis Lend Lease.

They had nothing to gain financially by cutting the pipe, and they wouldn't have knowingly created a fire hazard in a building where they worked, the defense lawyers say.

A roster of inspectors never flagged the broken pipe, though prosecutors say a 42-foot-long section was missing for almost nine months before the deadly fire.

Regardless, the pipe wasn't the crucial factor in the firefighters' deaths, Melofchik lawyer Edward J.M. Little argued.

Measures meant to contain toxins -- including heavy plastic-and-plywood barriers in stairwells and some 100 industrial fans that kept air from escaping -- created "a lethal smoke chamber," he said in his opening statement.

"This was a perfect storm of bad circumstances. It's something that nobody could have foreseen at all," Little said. If inspectors and safety experts couldn't recognize the dangers, neither could Melofchik, he said.

"There's no reason to put this all on him," Little said.

The city and Bovis acknowledged mistakes after the fire. Bovis agreed to finance a $10 million memorial fund for slain firefighters' families and a $2 million fire safety academy. The fire department -- which was supposed to inspect the former bank building every 15 days but hadn't done so for more than a year before the fire -- created 40 inspection and auditing jobs, among other responses.

Melofchik, 49; Alvo, 58; and DePaola, 56, could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted. The company could face a $10,000 fine.

Alvo and the company have elected to have a judge decide their cases. She'll hear evidence simultaneously with the jury, which will render a verdict for DePaola and Melofchik after a trial expected to last three months or more.
 
 

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