City escapes charges in Deutsche Bank fire

December 22, 2008 1:52:48 PM PST
I didn't go to law school.

I make this admission up front as a way to explain that maybe I'm missing something in these indictments handed up today for the deaths of two New York City firefighters a year ago last August at the condemned Deutsche Bank Building at Ground Zero.

Three workers were charged with second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment for the fire in the toxic building that was in the process of getting demolished. (Read more)

But -- and again I've no law degree -- the degree of culpability (a big word for a non-lawyer, I know) seems to extend far beyond just these three men. The City's Buildings Dept. didn't inspect the Deutsche Bank property. Neither did the FDNY. If they had - as required by law - they would have discovered a disabled standpipe in the basement of the building; a 42-foot section of the pipe was missing. It clearly wouldn't have been hard to find the problem.

So many people failed to live up to the law, or the standards of professionalism, that many people expected many more indictments -- the main construction company, Bovis Lend Lease; perhaps some Fire Dept. personnel; the City building inspectors.

But when Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau announced the charges, only the three construction supervisors with the sub-contractor were indicted.

There are some who call it a coverup. Others say it's just a miscarriage of justice. Again, I'm not an attorney. But it just doesn't add up.

And here's why.

One need only look at how Morgenthau explained his non-actions. He didn't indict Bovis because, he said, he didn't want to leave the company's workers unemployed and because the company has agreed to have its work in the City now overseen by a monitor.

Is that the criterion these days for not taking criminal action for wrongful deaths? That the workers may lose their jobs? Seems to me - and again, I'm no lawyer - that two firefighters lost their jobs AND their lives.

As for City officials not being responsible, Morgenthau said the decision not to indict was because of something called "sovereign immunity" -- which gives a municipality some kind protection. So does this mean that no amount of gross negligence by a City worker qualifies as criminal? Again, I'm no abogado, but what does this "protect" city employees from? I know many people are protected from getting sued, personally, if they're performing their job. Indemnified by their employer, I think is what happens.

But does that make them criminally indemnified?

And if it does, then how did that happen?

Even Morgenthau acknowledged there were so many mistakes made by so many people in this case. But if you're the family of one of the two firefighters killed, I suspect you'd want more than that to explain the loss of someone you love. Make that "loved."

We'll have the latest on this horrible accident -- and today's controversial indictments -- tonight at 11.

We're also monitoring the blast of arctic air that has descended on our area. Lee Goldberg is tracking the cold for us, at 11.

And we're shopping tonight, or at least we're with shoppers, as they hit the malls and stores, many of which are open 'round the clock 'til Christmas. The canary-in-the-coal-mine for this holiday spending season may be the unsold Christmas trees that line the streets. Are folks really not buying them this year? It appears that sales are way down.

We'll also have any breaking news of the night. I hope you can join us, tonight at 11.