A Manhattan jury and a presiding state Supreme Court judge soon will decide whether three construction managers on trial since April for manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in a fatal high-rise fire will face jail time.
After 10 weeks of testimony and attorney summations that differed sharply on who was to blame for the 2007 Deutsche Bank blaze in which two New York City firefighters died, jurors began deliberating on June 16. They are weighing the fates of two of the defendants: site safety manager Jeffrey Melofchik, 49, a former executive of project contractor Bovis Lend Lease, and Salvatore DePaola, 56, foreman for site asbestos-cleanup subcontractor, The John Galt Corp.
Bovis was supervising asbestos abatement and demolition of the 41-story building, once adjacent to the World Trade Center and damaged in the 9/11 attack. The high-rise was demolished in January to make way for new building.
Judge Rena K. Uviller will render a verdict for the third defendant, Mitchel Alvo, 58, the sub's project manager, and for the firm itself, which is now defunct. The fire killed firefighters Robert Beddia 53, and Joseph Graffagnino, 33, and injured 34 others. The defendants, including the Galt firm, are charged with two counts each of criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter and one count of reckless endangerment. The individuals each face up to 20 years in prison.
Prosecutor Joel J. Seidemann pinned blame on the defendants for lax safety oversight on the project and for allowing the dismantling of a 42-ft section of standpipe that cut off the building's water supply during the fire. The defendants' experience and responsibilities were consistently downplayed during testimony, prompting an indignant prosecutor to accuse them of being disingenuous. Noting the three managers' combined total of about 60 years of jobsite experience, he disputed their claim that they could not identify the standpipe that held the building's water supply.
“One thing that's amazing about these defendants: They touted their experience before the fire,” said Seidemann. “They knew nothing after.” He said several prosecution witnesses were able to identify the standpipe and its function. “Who's playing dumb?” Seidemann said. “How is it workers know it's a standpipe, and inspectors don't?”
Defense attorneys said their clients were “scapegoats” for the failures of government inspectors, larger companies and others and that a “perfect storm” of factors caused the fatal blaze. “There are tragic accidents. There's not always someone who's negligent, and there's not always somebody who's a criminal,” said Melofchik attorney Edward J.M. Little. He said the case must be decided “on evidence, on reason and the rule of law.”
Little and other defense attorneys pointed to others who they believe shared responsibility for the tragedy, including officials of the city's fire department, its departments of labor and environmental protection, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which purchased the building several years after the attack.
While Little contended that Melofchik dutifully performed daily inspections on a 158-point check list, Seidemann countered that the site manager simply “punched a computer button” to mark lists reflecting what his superiors wanted to see. “These were daily lies,” according to Seidemann. “The only thing that changed was the date.” He said the defendants rushed their jobs because financial pressure at the jobsite “trickled down and weighed down” on them.