Testimony April 21 and 25 in the manslaughter trial of three construction supervisors related to the fatal 2007 fire at the former Deutsche Bank building site in lower Manhattan focused on the removal several months before of hangers supporting a basement standpipe—and the subsequent dismantling of a section of the pipe itself during asbestos abatement.
Prosecutors contend that the missing pipe made it impossible to deliver adequate water to fight the fire in an abatement containment area of the building. Abatement of the building, damaged during the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11, 2001, was ongoing prior to demolition. Firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffignino were killed in the blaze.
The defendants, Jeffrey Melofchik, former building safety manager for general contractor Bovis Lend Lease, New York City, and Salvatore DePaola and Mitchel Alvo, abatement supervisors for the now defunct demolition subcontractor John Galt Corp., are charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
Galt foreman Adolpho Ortiz initially testified that he knew the pipe was a standpipe and that he had informed his supervisor, DePaola, of the potential danger in removing it. At the time, Ortiz was the foreman in sub-basement level B and not basement level A, where the pipe in question was removed.
When questioned by defense attorneys, Ortiz appeared somewhat unclear about which pipes were standpipes. Shown a photograph of several iron pipes in the Deutsche Bank building basement—including the pipe in question—he said they all were standpipes.
When Edward Little, the attorney representing Melofchik, asked, “You said it was a standpipe because it was a black iron pipe with red couplings?” Ortiz said, “Yes.” Little then asked, “Do you think every pipe with red couplings is a standpipe?” Ortiz once again said, “Yes.”
Removing the hangers that supported the standpipe was allegedly ordered by supervisors to make the abatement process faster and easier. Just a few hours after the hangers were removed however, a 12- to 15-ft section of the standpipe crashed to the ground. “It was really loud,” Ortiz said, adding that he rushed to the scene and immediately used a radio to summon supervisors, including the defendants, to the site. “Someone gave the order to cover up the end area [of the pipe],” Ortiz noted. He said he filled it with foam and put tape on it. Later, more of the pipe was removed.
The incident occurred two to three weeks before the city Dept. of Environmental Protection and other government agencies inspected the basement. It passed inspection, but no inspectors flagged the missing standpipe, said Ortiz. He and his crew were then reassigned to the 26th and 27th floors of the building to continue the asbestos abatement process.
The Deutsche Bank fire appears to have been caused by a worker’s careless disposal of a cigarette. Ortiz also testified that smoking on the job site was commonplace among both workers and supervisors, although he noted that workers did not smoke in the asbestos containment areas.