Guilty verdicts in Black Sunday fire

February 18, 2009 9:05:09 PM PST
A company that owns an apartment building and the building manager were found guilty Wednesday of criminally negligent homicide for allowing construction of a deadly maze of illegal walls that forced two firefighters to jump to their deaths to escape a surging blaze. Cesar Rios, the building manager, dodged a manslaughter conviction that could have sent him to prison for 15 years, the Bronx District Attorney's office said. Rios and the company also were found guilty of reckless endangerment.

He faces up to four years in prison on the criminally negligent homicide charge and a year on the reckless endangerment charge. The limited liability company could be fined up to $15,000.

Six firefighters were trapped in 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; another two also escaped.

The verdict came after a week of deliberations. A second jury last week acquitted two tenants of similar charges, placing blame with the management, instead of the tenants who had built the walls. Tenants Caridad Coste and Rafael Castillo had also faced manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and other charges that could have resulted in up to 15 years in prison.

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said he hoped Wednesday's verdict "offers some comfort" to Meyran's and Bellew's families, who were dismayed by the tenants' acquittals.

Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson added, "It is most appropriate that those who, through their greed, caused this needless suffering receive significant punishment."

Coste and Castillo were accused of illegally slicing up their apartments to make bedrooms for renters. The blaze, sparked by a faulty electrical cord, started in Castillo's third-floor apartment.

Firefighters testified during the trial that the shoddy construction made the building a deathtrap. Prosecutors argued that Rios, who formerly owned the building, and the company should have stopped construction and better watched over the buildings to ensure no illegal activity was taking place.

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.

The firefighters were trapped in the building as black smoke made it nearly impossible to see. As flames licked as their bodies and a wall of fire came toward them, the four firefighters jumped, including Meyran, 46, and Bellew, 37.

"Today's ruling, although only a slap on the wrist, sends a message to all the unscrupulous landlords in New York," said Steve Cassidy, president of the firefighters' union, the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York.