Tenants acquitted in firefighter deaths

February 13, 2009 4:55:30 PM PST
Two tenants were acquitted Friday of creating a deadly maze of illegal walls in a Bronx apartment building that forced two firefighters responding to the blaze to jump to their deaths. Caridad Coste and Rafael Castillo had faced manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and other charges that could have resulted in up to 15 years in prison. A second jury was considering similar charges against the building's former and current owners.

The verdict came after more than a month of testimony in a Bronx court where jurors heard testimony from firefighters who lived through the ordeal. The courtroom Friday was packed with uniformed firefighters and the widows of the victims.

"New York City firefighters are disgusted that our safety has been so easily disregarded in this case," said Steve Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association. He called the acquittals "an absolute disgrace."

Six firefighters were trapped at the building on Jan. 23, 2005. Two of them, Lt. Curtis Meyran and firefighter John Bellew, died after jumping from a fourth-floor window. Two others who jumped survived.

After the verdicts were read, widow Eileen Bellew put her head in her hands and sobbed.

Jeanette Meyran, looking stoic and wearing her husband's firefighter jacket, said she didn't want to stay for the second jury because she anticipated another acquittal.

"It's unbelievable," she said. "You can't just do what you want because then you put people in harm's way. And for what? More money? There was no doubt that those walls led to his death."

The defendants and their families rushed out of the courtroom yelling in Spanish, "We are free!"

Both Coste and Castillo praised God outside court. Coste wept with joy after the verdict, and her attorney showed off thin ropes that he said would have saved the firefighters had they been distributed.

"I feel for them," she said of the firefighters' families.

"Because they were defending us. But we aren't to blame for a lack of water or freezing temperatures that made getting water impossible, or that they didn't have ropes."

Castillo said of the firefighters: "They are heroes. And I know what happened was a tragedy. But it was not our fault. It is a shame."

Coste and Castillo were accused of illegally subdividing their apartments to make bedrooms for renters. Firefighters testified during the trial that the shoddy construction made the building a deathtrap.

"Notwithstanding this verdict, the issue of illegally subdivided apartments or houses remains a grave threat to the public as well as to firefighters," Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said in a statement.

With flames licking at their bodies and black smoke making it nearly impossible to see, four firefighters jumped from a fourth-floor window including Meyran, 46, and Bellew, 37.

The case highlighted the persistent fire hazard of using temporary walls for illegal apartment conversions - a common problem in a city where rents are high and space is always in demand.

Castillo had added two bedrooms to his family's three-bedroom, third-floor apartment and rented them out. The blaze, which started due to a faulty electrical cord, spread to Coste's fourth-floor apartment, where he had also built extra rooms.

Prosecutor Jeffrey Glucksman said during closing arguments that the tenants were motivated by greed.

But Castillo's defense attorney, Lisa Pelosi, told the jury that poor radio communication among firefighters, frozen hydrants and burst water hoses were responsible for the spread of the fire, not her client. Coste's attorney, Francisco Knipping, also blamed the city.

A Fire Department probe after the blaze found serious lapses in equipment and procedures, including communication breakdowns and a lack of safety rope, which were not provided to firefighters at the time but are now.

Firefighter Jeffrey Cool, one of the men who lived through the jump, testified he bought a safety rope at a trade show six months earlier that he used to get out alive.

Across the city, such makeshift warrens are often found in neighborhoods popular with college students, recent graduates on their first jobs and immigrants. A lock is often slapped on the extra rooms so they can be rented for extra money.