Charges filed in Deutsche Bank fire

December 25, 2008 9:37:24 AM PST
Almost a year and a half after the deadly fire at the former Deutsche Bank building, criminal charges have been filed connected to the deaths of two New York City firefighters.The Manhattan district attorney on Monday detailed the case against three construction supervisors who are now charged of manslaughter.

To view pictures from the Deutsche Bank tragedy, CLICK HERE.

The three men named in the indictments walked into the courthouse early Monday morning to face charges brought by Manhattan DA Robert Morganthau. They are two senior officials at subcontractor John Galt Corp. and a manager with general contractor Bovis Lend Lease. The Galt company is also being charged.

The indictments follow an extensive investigation into the Deutsche Bank building fire 16 months ago. The 41-story building had been irreparably damaged on September 11th and was in the process of being demolished when fire broke out on the upper floors.

Firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino died inside. A subsequent investigation revealed the building's sprinkler system had been taken offline, fire exits were blocked and, perhaps most significantly, the standpipe used to bring water to higher floors specifically for fighting fires had been dismantled.

"Everybody who could have screwed up, screwed up here," District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said in assessing the breakdowns that led to the fire.

The city had acknowledged failing to inspect the building for fire hazards but was not charged in the deaths. This angered family members of the victims - firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino.

Morgenthau said that while the city made major mistakes, governments are generally immune from criminal prosecutions under the centuries-old legal doctrine sovereign immunity.

"We would have been tilting at windmills if we had tried to indict the city," Morgenthau said. He said that absent some special waiver by the state Legislature, the city and its officials are immune from prosecution in performing their duties.

But prosecutors did reach an agreement with the city and Bovis Lend Lease that requires both of them to institute major safety measures "to make sure that firefighters are never again exposed to the risks they faequires, for more than a year. Other city and state regulators had also been in the tower on a near-daily basis, but didn't report the hazards.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement: "We will now be creating an additional civilian inspection unit at the Fire Department dedicated to construction, demolition and abatement sites."

The defendants are Jeffrey Melofchik, the site safety manager for Bovis; Mitchel Alvo, director of abatement for John Galt; and Salvatore DePaola, a Galt foreman. The penalty for second-degree manslaughter is five to 15 years in prison.

The defendants pleaded not guilty at their arraignment in Manhattan's state Supreme Court. Justice Robert Stolz set bail for Alvo and Melofchik at $250,000 bond to be secured by $100,000 cash or bond and a $150,000 personal recognizance bond secured by their homes. Bail for DePaola was set at $175,000 cash or bond. All three defendants were ordered to return to court Jan. 7.

Daniel Castleman, Morgenthau's chief deputy, said a second grand jury is investigating issues related to the fire other than the firefighters' deaths.

The indictment ends the 16-month probe into the fire. John Galt Corp. was a subcontractor hired by Bovis and the building's owner, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., to remove toxic debris from the building and take it down floor by floor. The 41-story tower had been dismantled to 26 stories before the fire, and still stands that tall just across from the World Trade Center site.

Besides giving inspections low priority, Morgenthau said, firefighters knew the building was contaminated with asbestos - they called it the "toxic tower" - so they left it uninspected.

Prosecutors said that it was an extraordinarily complicated investigation. They interviewed more than 150 people, examined more than 3 million documents and presented 80 witnesses to the grand jury. The transcript of the testimony is 6,500 pages long.

A primary focus of the investigation was the numerous hazards at the tower: The pipe supplying water to fire hoses was broken and the sprinklers didn't work, stairwells were blocked with plywood paneling meant to keep toxic debris in, no working elevator existed inside the building, and an air pressure system created more smoke.

A construction worker's carelessly tossed cigarette caused the fire, but investigators had spent much of the time investigating who was responsible for the maze of fire hazards in the building that hampered firefighters' efforts in the tower. They included the cut standpipe, blocked stairwells, thick plastic sheeting to cover toxic debris that trapped smoke in the building and a negative air pressure system that pushed flames down toward the firefighters.

The Fire Department - which had a firehouse next door - acknowledged it hadn't regularly inspected the building, as city law requires, for more than a year. Other city and state regulators had also been in the tower on a near-daily basis, but didn't report the hazards.

The city and the state-controlled LMDC have spent millions on criminal defense attorneys during the prosecutor's investigation, which brought officials including Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta and former Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster before a grand jury.

Michael Barasch, an attorney for the Beddia family, said Monday that the news of charges represented "a bittersweet moment" for the family. "They're not surprised at all, in light of the many willful OSHA violations" cited against both Bovis and Galt, he said.

The Occupational Safety and health Administration fined both contractors a combined $464,500 earlier this year for more than 40 safety violations at the building.

Barasch also said that the family intended to pursue civil suits against the contractors and the city. The family of Graffagnino was also said to be moving ahead with a civil lawsuit.

Joseph Graffagnino Sr. told Eyewitness News reporter Joe Torres that there is no joy this Christmas.

The 60-year-old said many questions remain unanswered surrounding the death of his son.

"The real justice is in going after the people who made this happen, who allowed this to happen such as the landlord and the general contractor," he said.

Wile Graffagnino seeks more accountability, the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association expressed satisfaction with the findings.

"The report lays blame where we think blame belongs. Over a year ago we had said that the leadership of the fire department had failed," Steve Cassidy said.

A grand jury is still hearing evidence about possible fraud linked to the demolition project.

The former bank building's demolition was put on hold for about a year because of the blaze. The building's removal has been stalled previously by the discovery of hundreds of Sept. 11 victims' body parts left in the building and other accidents, including one that sent a pipe through the roof of the neighboring firehouse.

STORY BY: Eyewitness News reporters Jamie Roth and Joe Torres

WEB PRODUCED BY: Bill King and Bob Monek

Some information from The Associated Press
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