Starbucks would be the last place one would expect to find the man New York City prosecutors tried to portray as “Wild Bill Rapetti.”

Rapetti embraces a coworker during an event honoring crane-accident victims.
Photo: Renee Rapetti
Rapetti embraces a coworker during an event honoring crane-accident victims.

Rapetti, the master rigger recently acquitted on manslaughter charges stemming from the deadly 2008 collapse of a Manhattan tower crane, was called “reckless” by the prosecution and vilified as the “killer crane rigger” in the tabloids.

But during an interview with ENR, Rapetti sat in the coffee shop, sipping a decaffeinated, passion fruit iced tea. The tea’s supposed calming effects would be tested. Despite the acquittal in his criminal trial, Rapetti is still fighting to get his crane operating and rigging licenses reinstated. He also is named as a defendant in numerous civil suits, on which he declined to comment.

Rapetti says that he’s persevering through his adversity with determination, acceptance and cautious optimism.

How did you prepare for the trial?

William Rapetti: By teaching [attorneys Arthur Aidala and John Esposito and Marianne Bertuna] the business. The prosecution didn’t have a clue so far as what really goes on. I retained them in January of ’09, and pretty much from that point on was teaching them. I took them to jobs, introduced them to guys in the field doing the work. They actually went on climbs, on erections and dismantling jobs. This industry, it’s got its own engine, and if you don’t really know how it runs, it’s hard to understand.

When were your licenses suspended?

WR: They took them Jan. 5 [2009]. I had to turn myself in. I spent 10 hours locked up, which was very traumatic for me. And when I got home, the [New York City] Dept. of Buildings knocked on my door 10 p.m., handed me a letter stating that my licenses had been suspended because I used the crane as a weapon for manslaughter. That was the night I came home from spending 10 hours locked up in the Tombs [nickname for the Manhattan Detention Complex]. Then they made the big “perp walk.” There were about 100-plus reporters. It was disgusting. They made me out to be a murderer.

What do you remember of the day of the collapse?

WR: It was a normal day, nothing out of the ordinary. There were minor problems that were easily rectified. I still didn’t like the [tie] beams. I made numerous calls to the design engineer. It was an uneventful day. The weather was decent.

And when it actually happened? One of the witnesses said you were repeating, “They were my friends. They had babies.”

WR: It’s still sore. I try to not think about it. It’s hard to explain. When you do this kind of work, it’s akin to being in a war situation, when you’re in a foxhole. These are the types of guys you would want to be defending alongside you. They each have their own stories. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t take a look at their picture or think about it.

Were you surprised by what you described as the “desperation” of the prosecution?

WR: It doesn’t surprise me because they do not understand totally. I think they wanted a scapegoat.

What did you think of the way you were portrayed by the New York media?

WR: The New York Post wrote “killer crane rigger” in one story. My daughters were so upset. That’s how she started her article: “Killer crane rigger.” I left the job. I couldn’t finish the day off. I told my foreman, “I’ve gotta get out of here.”

At one point, did the prosecutor reference the Mafia?

WR: La Casa Nostra. She compared me! The reference was, “Having Rapetti Rigging handling the slings was like having La Casa Nostra handling the banking system of the United States.” It’s disgusting that she used an Italian reference because I’m Italian.

How do you cope with everything that’s happened?

WR: I’m blessed. I have a great wife and kids and surrounding family. My friends have been calling me and telling me not to give up, keep my chin up. That day [of the acquittal], I was offered three jobs. They were jobs that were going to be offered beforehand, but I didn’t have my licenses.

You said it has been difficult to get your life back. What’s the road forward?

WR: To be able to have my license back is a start. Then, I can start feeling like I’m contributing to my profession. It’s hard to be a crane operator without a license.

Do you have a message for the construction community or the city?

WR: I want to thank the support of the industry. I felt somewhat like the Verizon commercial when the guy has all the people behind him—“Do you hear me now?”