Man recalls pipe break before toxic-tower fire

April 25, 2011 4:49:40 PM PDT
Three construction company supervisors quickly learned about a dramatic break in a firefighting water pipe that authorities later linked to a deadly blaze at a condemned ground zero bank tower, a worker told jurors Monday at the supervisors' manslaughter trial.

By sketching jurors a picture of the supervisors gathered around a fallen segment of the pipe in the former Deutsche Bank building's basement, Adolpho Ortiz helped reinforce prosecutors' argument that the defendants knew about the break and didn't fix it. The severed pipe became a fatal factor in an August 2007 blaze that claimed two firefighters, prosecutors say.

Defendants Jeffrey Melofchik, Salvatore DePaola and Mitchel Alvo say they didn't recognize the pipe's role and are being scapegoated for myriad hazards and regulatory failures at the building.

The men were among many working to clean and dismantle the once 41-story bank building, which was contaminated by toxic debris in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Ortiz testified last week that Alvo, a cleanup director, and DePaola, an asbestos-removal foreman, had told him to cut down supports that held up the firefighting pipe because they were proving hard to clean as an important inspection loomed in autumn 2006. Ortiz said he'd told DePaola the pipe, called a standpipe, supplied emergency water.

"That was the comment I made," he reiterated Monday, testifying with the aid of a Spanish interpreter.

But a few hours later, "we were all busy working, and there was a loud noise" as a section of the pipe plummeted to the basement floor, Ortiz recalled Monday. "It bounced a few times. ... It was really loud."

He said he summoned DePaola, and Mitchel Alvo and site safety supervisor Jeffrey Melofchik soon followed. Prosecutors say the supervisors ultimately had some 42 feet of the standpipe cut up and carted off and did nothing to flag or repair it.

Defense lawyers pointed out, through questioning, that Ortiz had kept working in the building and didn't believe it was dangerous after the pipe fell, and they suggested that the Colombian-born worker was motivated to tell investigators and prosecutors what they wanted to hear because they spoke to him about his immigration status.

Ortiz didn't detail those conversations but said he wasn't promised help or threatened with trouble. Manhattan prosecutors wouldn't discuss the exchanges.

A worker's careless smoking started the fire, which tore through nine floors of the building. Firefighters Robert Beddia, 53, and Joseph P. Graffagnino, 33, died after being trapped in thick smoke.

Prosecutors point to the broken standpipe, noting that it took firefighters about an hour to get water on the flames. Defense lawyers say other factors, including stairwell barriers and fans meant to contain toxins, did more to create the perilous conditions.

After the blaze, investigators found a litany of shortcomings in government agencies' oversight of the building - including failures by the fire department, which was supposed to inspect the building every 15 days but hadn't done so in more than a year. The city and general contractor Bovis Lend Lease acknowledged mistakes but weren't charged with any crimes.

Melofchik, 49, DePaola, 56, Alvo, 58, and the John Galt Corp., which employed Alvo and DePaola, have pleaded not guilty. If convicted, the men could face up to 15 years in prison, and the company could face a $10,000 fine.

Meanwhile, Staten Island prosecutors on Monday unveiled an unrelated case that arose from the extensive investigation into the fire.

Former crane supervisor Bruce Greenberg, falsely claiming he couldn't work because of lung disease, collected Social Security payments while working on dismantling the former bank building between 2004 and 2008, District Attorney Daniel Donovan said.

Greenberg pleaded not guilty to grand larceny and other charges.

His wife, Angela Greenberg, pleaded not guilty to charges including filing a false tax return. They have been released without bail.

Neither is charged with any wrongdoing related to the fire.

The probe that followed the fire spurred at least one other tangential criminal case: charges against three men and four check-cashing companies accused of doctoring their records to get around state financial reporting requirements. The companies cashed checks for construction companies that worked on taking down the bank tower, Manhattan prosecutors said. The construction firms weren't charged.

The men and check-cashing companies have pleaded guilty, prosectutors said Monday.