As testimony continued in early May in the ongoing manslaughter trial of three construction managers linked to the fatal August 18, 2007, fire at a former high-rise site near Ground Zero, firefighters focused on the tension and frustration that characterized the day.
Construction witnesses discussed the dismantled standpipe in the Deutsche Bank building’s basement that prosecutors contend prevented water from reaching the fire’s 17th floor location and led directly to the deaths of firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph P. Graffagnino.
Questions remain over who called for the pipe to be dismantled and whether that person—or indeed anyone working on the job site or anyone who inspected the basement in December 2006—knew that the pipe was in fact a standpipe. The building was undergoing asbestos abatement and demolition at the time of the fire.
Defendants, Jeffrey Melofchik, former building safety manager for general contractor Bovis Lend Lease, New York City, and Mitchel Alvo and Salvatore DePaola, former asbestos abatement supervisors for its subcontractor, the John Galt Corp., also face charges of criminally negligent homicide. Galt Corp. also is a defendant.
Defense attorneys have said their clients are being made scapegoats for a disaster that involved many hazards and multiple regulatory failures.
Firefighter James Martin offered dramatic testimony May 5 on conditions he encountered in the burning building, including the inoperable water supply, and efforts to escape the smoke-filled containment area with Beddia and Graffagnino.
“We were crawling and crouching and carrying the hose back down to the 14th floor,” Martin said. Both Beddia and Graffagnino were running out of air and the situation was desperate. Using his radio, Martin gave a Mayday. “I realized I had to go get help because it wasn’t going to come,” he said, explaining his decision to leave his fellow firefighters.
Literally stumbling into another group of firefighters near the construction hoistway, a dazed Martin told them where to find Beddia and Graffagnino. The two unconscious firefighters were taken to the hospital where they were pronounced dead.
The decision was made to remove the hangers, which caused a piece of the pipe to break free and fall to the ground. Later, a larger section of the pipe was removed.