No manslaughter convictions Deutsche Bank blaze

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)

July 6, 2011 10:33:42 AM PDT
A toxin-cleanup director and a company were acquitted Wednesday of manslaughter in an August 2007 blaze that killed two firefighters at a condemned tower at ground zero, although the firm was convicted of a misdemeanor.

The John Galt Corp. was found guilty of second-degree reckless endangerment, the only conviction in the criminal case filed over the fire at the former Deutsche Bank building. The judge acquitted worker Mitchel Alvo of all charges. Jurors had acquitted two other construction-company supervisors of all charges last week.

"I'm really mystified," said Galt attorney David Wikstrom. He said he couldn't understand how the company could be convicted of a crime when the workers were acquitted. He said he would move to overturn the verdict.

Alvo's fiancee wept tears of joy as they left the courthouse.

"Now I've just got to get on with my life and start making a living again," Alvo said.

District Attorney Cy Vance said the case "raised consciousness and awareness about fire and building safety."

"The investigation and resulting agreements contributed to important reforms at city agencies, including the FDNY - changes that have undoubtedly saved lives," Vance said in a statement.

The fire killed firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino and revealed poor regulation of the damaged building, which was being dismantled in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Alvo, 59; asbestos cleanup foreman Salvatore DePaola, 56; and site safety manager Jeffrey Melofchik, 49, were the only people criminally charged in the fire. Galt, which employed Alvo and DePaola, was the only company charged.

Sparked by careless smoking, the fire tore through nine floors of the former bank building, which once was 41 stories tall.

Beddia, 53, and Graffagnino, 33, died after being trapped in thick smoke and running out of air in their oxygen tanks.

Prosecutors said their deaths were due to a broken firefighting pipe, called a standpipe. Because it was hobbled, firefighters struggled to get water on the flames for about an hour while the fire grew into a lethal inferno, prosecutors said.

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

"They did the thing that killed those firefighters," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joel Seidemann said in a closing argument last month.

Defense lawyers said the men didn't distinguish the standpipe from a thicket of pipes in the building's basement. Besides, the fire was fueled by many other hazards and regulators' mistakes, they said.

"Nobody foresaw this perfect storm of terrible circumstances," defense lawyer Edward J.M. Little said in his summation.

A roster of government agencies was supposed to have been monitoring the complicated process of dismantling the building, which had been damaged and coated with toxic debris when the World Trade Center's South Tower crashed into it after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

After the blaze, it emerged that the city Fire Department 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 some measures supposed to contain toxins would complicate firefighting. Firefighters had to break through plywood stairwell barriers, and a fan system ended up concentrating smoke in the building.

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.

Firefighter unions said the defendants charged in the fire were scapegoats for government agencies that were responsible for dismantling the building.

"Key city agencies responsible for the oversight of this building should have been indicted," said Steve Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association.

Alexander Hagan, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, said the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which owned the building, "deliberately sacrificed safety for speed."

He called for a new investigation into the fire.

Meanwhile, the building continued to loom as a somber reminder of the terror attacks until February, when the last of it was removed.

Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.