2nd acquittal in deadly Deutsche Bank fire trial

FILE - In this Aug. 18, 2007 file photo, a fire that claimed the lives of two firefighters burns in the former Deutsche Bank building, a ground zero tower damaged and contaminated by toxic debris during the Sept. 11 attacks, in New York. After a costly, lengthy investigation that at one point directly pointed at the city, Manhattan prosecutors charged a construction-company foreman and two supervisors with manslaughter in the 2007 blaze. Jury selection in their trial is expected to start Monday, March 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Eric M. Hazard, File)

June 29, 2011 3:12:24 PM PDT
A second construction-company supervisor was acquitted Wednesday of manslaughter and all other charges in a blaze that killed two firefighters at a condemned bank tower at ground zero.

Jurors delivered their verdict regarding Jeffrey Melofchik after acquitting Salvatore DePaola on Tuesday. A judge is still weighing charges against a third man and a company.

The August 2007 fire at the former Deutsche Bank building, which killed firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph P. Graffagnino, spotlighted poor oversight of the building being taken down after being damaged and contaminated on 9/11.

Mitchel Alvo, 59; DePaola, 56; and Melofchik, 49, were the only people criminally charged in the fire. The John Galt Corp., which employed Alvo and DePaola, was the only company charged.

A worker's careless smoking sparked the blaze, which tore through nine floors.

The building demolition project was supposed to be closely monitored by a list of government agencies. But it turned out that the Fire Department of New York hadn't inspected the building for more than a year, though it was required to do so every 15 days.

Building, environmental and labor inspectors hadn't realized that firefighting would be complicated by some measures that had been undertaken to contain toxins, including plywood stairwell barriers and a fan system that kept smoke in and pulled it down.

The firefighters died after being trapped in thick smoke and running out of air in their oxygen tanks.

Prosecutors said the critical factor in their deaths was a broken firefighting pipe, called a standpipe. Unable to use it, firefighters spent about an hour devising another way to get water on the flames on upper floors. In the meantime, the fire grew to deadly proportions, prosecutors said.

They said Alvo, DePaola and Melofchik knew the pipe had broken about eight months before. Under pressure not to let the cleanup lag, the men had the broken segment carted away and did nothing to repair or report it, prosecutors said. Nonetheless, they said, Melofchik kept signing daily reports saying the building's fire-suppression system was working.

"I'm not going to get up here and argue that the regulation was great, the supervision was wonderful," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joel Seidemann told jurors in a closing argument earlier this month.

But the defendants, he said, "did the thing that killed those firefighters."

Defense lawyers said that the men didn't realize the pipe's firefighting role and that the fire was fed by numerous hazards and regulators' mistakes.

"Nothing could have happened except that firefighters were going to die, and it's not the defendants' fault," defense lawyer Edward J.M. Little said in a summation. "Nobody foresaw this perfect storm of terrible circumstances."

The city and Melofchik's employer, general contractor Bovis Lend Lease, acknowledged errors in dealing with the former bank building. The fire department created dozens of inspection and auditing jobs, and Bovis agreed to finance a $10 million memorial fund for slain firefighters' families, among other responses.

Meanwhile, the building lingered for almost a decade as a grim reminder of the attacks. The last of it was finally removed in February.