The attorney for the crane rigger accused of causing the deadly 2008 crane collapse in Manhattan said that “incompetence at the highest levels of city government” caused the accident, which killed seven people, rather than the “recklessness” prosecutors alleged against his client, William Rapetti.

Photo: AP/Louis Lanzano
Rapetti on the day of his indictment in January, 2009.
Photo: Michael Goodman for ENR
The defense has emphasized that Rapetti operated equipment at Ground Zero.

Rapetti was the master rigger of a 200-ft-high tower crane at the high-rise apartment construction site in Manhattan. The crane was in the process of being “jumped” or extended from the building's 18th floor when it collapsed, killing the crane operator, five members of the rigging crew and a building resident. Rapetti was licensed by the city's Buildings Dept. to supervise crane jumps and was a member of Local 14 of the operating engineers' union.

But Rapetti was indicted in 2009 on multiple charges of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, assault and reckless endangerment. Prosecutors said he faces a total of up to 27 years in prison.

Even though the rigger declined a jury, opening statements in his manslaughter trial were marked by theatrics, props, emotional appeals and slideshows in front of a steely Justice Roger Hayes.

Assistant district attorney Sean Sullivan started by waving a yellow, polyester band representing the sling that he said Rapetti and his company Rapetti Rigging Services, Massapequa, N.Y., installed “carelessly” and “recklessly” on the day the crane tumbled.

Sullivan claimed that regulations called for the crane to be supported by eight slings, but he said Rapetti used only four, including ones that were sun-beaten, torn and damaged and were improperly tied to edges and corners.

Photographic evidence came out early as Sullivan flashed pictures onto a screen showing the slings tied at an angle, which he said contradicted the instructions printed on the back of every band.

As Sullivan shifted to an emotional description of the victims� surviving family members, personal backgrounds and fatal injuries, Rapetti�s three daughters seated in the front row broke out into sobs and had to be escorted out of the courtroom.

Sullivan promised that the prosecution�s case would include the “frantic” 911 call of a man trapped under the rubble for four hours, doctors describing “devastating, mortal injuries” and “gripping, first hand accounts of when the slings failed.”

Rapetti�s attorney, Arthur Aidala, said that the slings were not the problem, claiming that the crane itself was never bolted to the ground because the building�s developers were trying to speed up construction to profit on the housing boom.

Aidala said that ground was excavated prematurely so that utility company Con Edison could install electricity, and that the building could start renting units sooner. But he said the hole in the ground left nothing for the crane to bolt down to, claiming it was supported merely “by friction.”

The Buildings Dept. refused to approve the design until engineer Peter Stroh wrote letters to convince them, Aidala claimed.

“Before March 15, this crane was already falling down,” Aidala said. “They were walking into an ambush that day.”

Portraying his client as a “blue collar worker” besieged by “pencil sharpened” bureaucrats, Aidala said that the city called on Rapetti as a rescue worker after Sept. 11, 2001, and now were using him as a "scapegoat" for systemic corruption.

Mocking the prosecution�s video simulations of the crash as “Disney/Pixar” creations by people in “white lab coats,” he claimed that Rapetti tested the broken sling theory “the Brooklyn way,” by taking crane workers to a secluded lot to run their own series of tests.

Aidala said that this experiment found that four slings gave enough support for a crane of that size, adding that the crane continued to stand even after the workers cut one entirely and damaged the others.

Aidala claimed that by opening his remarks with the crane collapse on March 15, 2008, prosecutor Sullivan was asking the judge to measure a book by its final pages.

“We ask the court to read the whole book,” he said.