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.
Three construction company officials committed "reckless crimes" by ignoring a break in a crucial water pipe that slowed firefighters' response in a blaze that killed two firefighters at a toxic ground zero tower, a prosecutor said Monday.
Opening statements began in the manslaughter trial of three construction-company supervisors and a firm involved in work at the former Deutsche Bank building.
Mitchel Alvo, Jeffrey Melofchik and Salvatore DePaola were in the building when the water pipe, called a standpipe, broke in the basement, ignored the 42-foot-long breach and even took steps to conceal it, said Manhattan assistant district attorney Brian Fields. The break kept firefighters from getting water to the burning floors of the tower in August 2007, he said.
"These are the men who chose to ignore that duty," Fields said. "And that is why 100 firefighters were left stranded in the Deutsche Bank building for over an hour with no water — because of choices these defendants made."
Defense opening statements were scheduled for later Monday. DePaola, Melofchik and Alvo say that they didn't realize what the pipe was, and that the firefighters' lives were endangered by many other hazards in the building. Mostly, they say they're small-time scapegoats for a fire fueled by others' mistakes.
They are the only people and entities criminally charged in the blaze, though prosecutors said a litany of regulators' oversights helped create deadly conditions.
Contaminated with toxic debris in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, the tower was being painstakingly dismantled when a worker's careless smoking started a fire that ultimately ripped through nine floors of the shrouded, cluttered building.
Surrounded by choking smoke, firefighters Robert Beddia, 53, and Joseph P. Graffagnino, 33, died on the 14th floor.
The fire department, which was supposed to inspect the building every 15 days, hadn't done so in more than a year, investigators found. Building, environmental and labor inspectors didn't realize that stairwell barriers meant to contain toxins hadn't been built to let firefighters get through.
The city and general contractor Bovis Lend Lease acknowledged mistakes. Bovis agreed to finance a $10 million memorial fund for slain firefighters' families, and the fire department created dozens of inspection and auditing jobs, among other responses.
Melofchik, 49, was Bovis' site safety manager. Alvo, 58, was the toxin-cleanup director for subcontractor John Galt Corp. DePaola, 56, was a Galt foreman.
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.
If convicted, the men could face up to 15 years in prison, and the company could face a $10,000 fine.
The last of the 41-story bank building was removed in February.