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Crane rigger acquitted in NYC collapse that killed 7

In this Jan. 5, 2009 photo, contractor William Rapetti, center, exits Manhattan criminal court with his wife Audrey and brother Al following his arraignment in New York. The contractor raised the crane that toppled in midtown Manhattan last year and killed seven people. (Louis Lanzano)

July 22, 2010 4:09:44 PM PDT
A crane rigger was acquitted Thursday of manslaughter charges stemming from the collapse of a New York City crane in 2008, a disaster that killed six construction workers and a tourist, hurt two dozen others and left a swath of damage in midtown Manhattan.

A judge delivered the verdict in the trial of William Rapetti, who was also acquitted of failing to file some city business taxes. He was the only person to face criminal charges in the collapse, which occurred near the U.N. headquarters.

Prosecutors say Rapetti did a recklessly inadequate job of securing the nearly 200-foot crane as it was being extended upward.

Rapetti's lawyer said that the rigger did his work carefully, but that the crane was unsteady because of engineering decisions and shoddy welding that weren't Rapetti's responsibility. Rapetti declined a jury.

The accident - and a second New York crane collapse that killed two people two months later - raised questions about crane safety around the country, spurring new inspections and other measures from New York to Chicago to Dallas.

The verdict came after a nearly monthlong trial that ranged from technical details of crane design to emotional accounts from survivors of the disaster, including a man trapped in the rubble for about four hours before being rescued. State Supreme Court Justice Roger Hayes even took a field trip to see the wreckage in a police storage lot.

"While we respect the criminal justice process, we are extremely disappointed by the court's verdict. At this time our thoughts go out to the seven victims' families, whose lives were devastated by this tragic incident," said Manhattan DA Cyrus R. Vance, Jr.

Rapetti showed no reaction as the verdict was read, but afterward, the red-eyed rigger hugged his sobbing wife, Audrey, at the courtroom rail. The seven manslaughter counts against him were punishable by a total of as many as 15 years in prison. He declined to comment as he left court.

"I can't say we're happy; we're relieved," defense lawyer Arthur Aidala said. Rapetti was devastated by the accident, he said, especially because six of those killed were co-workers, several of them men he counted among his closest friends.

"(Prosecutors) wanted to portray him as reckless, Wild Bill Rapetti, and that just wasn't substantiated by the facts," Aidala said.

Rapetti's company, Rapetti Rigging Services Inc., was also acquitted of manslaughter and other charges.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said prosecutors were "extremely disappointed" by the verdict.

"Our thoughts go out to the seven victims' families, whose lives were devastated," he said in a statement.

Killed were crane workers Wayne Bleidner, 51; Clifford Canzona, 45; Brad Cohen, 54; Santino Gallone, 37; Anthony Mazza, 39; and Aaron Stephens, 45. The seventh victim was tourist Odin Torres, 28, of Hialeah, Fla., who was staying in an apartment that was crushed.

Prosecutors, city building officials and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration attributed the collapse to the failure of four heavy-duty polyester straps that Rapetti and his crew were using temporarily to fasten a more than 11,000-pound steel collar around the crane on March 15, 2008. The collar was part of an assembly designed to link the crane to the condominium tower it was helping to build.

The crane manufacturer called for using eight of the $50 straps for the job, but Rapetti used four - one seriously worn - even though six new straps were provided to him, according to prosecutors and testimony from others involved in the construction. He also didn't pad the straps to keep them from fraying against the crane's metal edges, a precaution outlined on the straps' own warning label.

The worn strap broke, overloading the remaining straps and breaking them, prosecutors said. The collar then shot down the crane, rupturing other collar assemblies farther down and destabilizing the crane, the investigations found.

Rapetti, who was injured in the collapse himself, didn't testify. His lawyers argued that the rigger was keenly aware of safety and followed accepted norms in using the straps, and that they weren't to blame for the collapse.

An engineer hired by Rapetti's lawyers suggested the rig fell because of welding and other problems in metal beams that were part of the collar assemblies. Under his theory, one of the beams failed, tipping the crane, which wasn't anchored to the ground as cranes commonly are, according to the engineer who designed it. The design relied instead on the collars and beams to keep the crane in place.

The engineer, Peter Stroh, testified that he believed the design was safe nonetheless, and that he had ordered some problems with the beams to be fixed.

Since the collapse, Rapetti has worked running the elevators that take workers up and down cranes, Aidala said. It's unclear whether he will return to his work as a master rigger, he said.

The 2008 crane collapses led to the resignation of the city's top building official and a host of new crane safety measures, ranging from hiring more inspectors to banning the use of nylon straps unless a crane manufacturer recommends them.

After Rapetti's trial, Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri called the accident "a reminder of the importance of taking every possible safety precaution on any construction site."

About 60 to 80 people die in crane-related incidents nationwide in an average year, according to OSHA, which doesn't have figures on the deadliest collapses. Others include a 1989 crane collapse in San Francisco that killed five people and a July 2008 crane collapse in Houston that took four lives.


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