Blasts Traded as Trial Opens In Ground-Zero Fatal Fire Case
In opening statements on April 4 and 5 in the New York City trial of three construction managers related to a 2007 fire at a former Ground Zero high-rise that killed two firefighters, the prosecution and defense painted vastly different portraits of the officials charged with criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter.
The inferno killed firefighters Joseph Graffagnino and Robert Beddia. About 100 others were injured.
In proceedings that could last more than four months, on trial are Jeffrey Melofchik, former building safety manager and a former executive of general contractor Bovis Lend Lease, New York City, which was demolition contractor for the one-time Deutsche Bank building.
Different legal strategies
Defendants are also Mitchel Alvo, site manager for demolition subcontractor, The John Galt Corp., and former president of Safeway Environmental; Salvatore DePaola, Galt site foreman and the now-defunct Galt firm.
The jury will decide the fate of Melofchik and DePaola, while Alvo and the company opted for a “bench trial,” with presiding Supreme Court Justice Rena K. Uviller to administer a ruling. Before proceedings began, Uviller instructed jurors not to draw any conclusions based on these defendants’ strategy decisions.
They are accused of a total of 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide, second-degree manslaughter and second-degree reckless endangerment.
Prosecutor Brian Fields, an assistant district attorney, set out to convince judge and jurors that the defendants created�or neglected to fix�conditions that turned the Deutsche Bank building, which was being cleaned for asbestos and demolished, into a “death trap.”
Abatement and demolition of the former 40-story high-rise, which was adjacent to the World Trade Center site and damaged in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack, was completed in January.
Fields said defendants had removed a 42-ft section of standpipe that might have quelled the deadly blaze, which he said was caused by a cigarette in the abatement containment area. Stressing the missing pipe’s critical role on-site, Fields termed it the “Goldilocks pipe,” noting, “It wasn’t too big. It wasn’t too small. It was just right.”
Fields told the court that defendants took “calculated risks” and accused them of ignoring warnings, a fire department violation and several smaller fires that foreshadowed the eventual seven-alarm blaze in August 2007. “The Deutsche Bank building became a house of cards,” Fields said, adding later, “They gambled with lives for money.”
‘Simple minded theory’
Melofchik defense attorney Edward J.M. Little blasted Fields’ argument as “simple-minded theory” and derided as “laughable” that defendants would enter a “conspiracy” to cut off their only source of water. He stressed that the asbestos-abatement “negative air system killed the firemen, not the site-safety managers.”
Little said that jail for the defendants was inappropriate. “The answer is not destroying the lives of three other men,” he said.
But Fields dismissed as “noise” defense claims that the air system, city fire inspectors or an “alphabet soup” of regulators were responsible for the tragedy. “The People don’t have to prove motive, but we will,” Fields vowed. “And the motive was money.”
The defense attorney derided as “laughable” the idea that the defendants would enter a “conspiracy” to cut off their only water source. “The idea that salaried employees would say, �To heck with the standpipe.’ That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever,” Little said. He added that the city’s Dept. of Buildings had a trailer stationed in the basement and walked past the standpipe regularly.
The opposing lawyers also had dramatically different presentation styles Fields presented his case in a dramatic, staccato tone, using a laser pointer to lead jurors through screen projection models of the Deutsche Bank building and surrounding area. Little, by contrast, had an understated demeanor, held on an easel near the jury box as he tried to convince the court that his client, Melofchik was not a gambler, but a dedicated manager who carried a 158-point checklist on his daily rounds from the top to bottom of the building, not a gambler.
The “slight” fires that preceded the Aug. 18, 2007, blaze were not warning signs reflecting a sloppy work environment, but an expected part of the type of demolition they were performing on the building. “They had licensed fire watch guys with heavy duty extinguishers,” Little said. “Why are we talking about slight fires?”
He added that "slight fires" were so common that they did not have to be reported, and Melofchik paid more attention to making sure employees did not smoke. That contention stood in sharp contrast to the prosecutor’s allegation that Melofchik permitted a work environment filled with cigarettes and liquor, against regulations.
‘When in doubt, cut it out’
In 2004, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. purchased the Deutsche Bank building for $90 million in order to raze it, freeing up the valuable land to develop a component of the new World Trade Center complex.
The building’s painstaking deconstruction stemmed from city rules about demolition and concern about possible asbestos contamination inside.
Bovis Lend-Lease LMB was awarded an $80-million contract for the job, and paid John Galt Corp. $58.5 million to oversee the project, Fields said. The contract had a “drop-dead date” of June 9, 2007, after which Bovis — and by extension, John Galt — would incur a maximum $2 million penalty, he said. In late fall 2006, “Bovis came to the conclusion that if Galt didn’t speed up, it would cost them $100 million to make $33 [million],” Fields said.
The abatement process required the defendants to decide whether pipes should be cleaned or removed, but Field said that time pressures motivated decisionmaking. “The motto became, �When in doubt, cut it out,’” he said.
Removal of the 42-ft pipe section allegedly caused water to flood the bank’s basement rather than be delivered to the rest of the building.
Fields tersely summarized the task ahead for the judge and jurors in his summation. “You will determine whether this was an unfortunate accident or a reckless crime,” he said. But Little noted that the trial’s expected duration demonstrates that it is not a simple case.