Defendants in Fatal Ground Zero Fire Face Manslaughter Trial in January
Three former New York City project officials indicted in connection with a fatal 2007 fire at a vacant Ground Zero high-rise being cleaned of asbestos and demolished will stand trial on manslaughter and other charges on Jan. 18. A New York state supreme court judge rejected on Oct. 22 motions to dismiss charges. The fire killed two firefighters.
Now facing trial related to the Deutsche Bank event are Jeffrey Melofchik, former lead project-safety manager and executive at Bovis Lend Lease; Mitchel Alvo, abatement director for The John Galt Corp., the site’s former demolition subcontractor; and Salvatore DePaola, a Galt foreman. The Galt firm also was indicted. The officials were charged in 2008 with a total of seven counts of second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and second-degree reckless endangerment.
The building, adjacent to the World Trade Center, had sustained damage on Sept. 11, 2001. The structure was being demolished when the fire occurred and firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino suffocated trying to fight the fire.
“We have no comment about the decision but are looking forward to the trial, when our client Jeff Melofchik can finally have his day in court,” Edward J.M. Little, the Bovis executive’s attorney said in a statement. Melofchik was terminated by Bovis, as a condition of the indictment, but is working as a site safety manager for another unidentified firm, according to sources.
The indictment had accused the defendants of being aware of or causing an inoperable building standpipe and not reporting it. The situation hampered firefighting and rescue efforts.
The defendants face up to 15 years in prison on two manslaughter charges, up to four years on two negligent-homicide charges and one year on the reckless-endangerment charge. They pleaded not guilty in December 2008 and were each released on bail ranging from $175,000 to $250,000.
In her 16-page ruling, Judge Rena K. Uviller noted the amount of evidence presented to the grand jury in the case by by former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, noting 40 witnesses and 300 exhibits. She noted that evidence pointed to “a cigarette being carelessly discarded” as the fire’s likely cause.
Uviller denied defendants’ motion to dismiss the case based on “legal insufficiency” as well as on “defective” instructions to the grand jury and failure to present certain evidence that might have influenced jury members not to indict.
However, Uviller did grant a motion by Melofchik to suppress certain statements he made to Morgenthau from being used in the case, as well as one by DePaola that will grant him a hearing to determine if comments he made to prosecutors are protected under a “debriefing agreement.”
Bovis escaped direct prosecution but agreed to strengthen safety practices at Deutsche Bank and at other jobsites in New York. The city’s Fire Dept., which had been criticized for improper inspections of the site’s fire hazards, also agreed to create a new 25-person fire-safety inspection unit to focus "exclusively" on all city buildings being constructed, demolished, improved or abated.
Demolition of the former 40-story high-rise is progressing, with Bovis still the project contractor and with a new LVI Services now the decontamination and demolition subcontractor. Only about five floors remain standing, but project officials did not respond to questions on when work is set for completion.