Lower Manhattan 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, the master rigger who was recently acquitted on manslaughter charges stemming from the deadly collapse of a 200-ft tower crane in Manhattan in 2008, was called “reckless” by the prosecution and vilified as the “killer crane rigger” in the tabloids.
But on a recent morning, Rapetti sat in the coffee shop, sipping a passion fruit Tazo iced tea, explaining that he’d quit caffeine for several years. But the tea’s calming effects have their work cut out for them. Despite the acquittal in his criminal trial, his crane operating and rigging licenses remain suspended. He also faces multiple OSHA violations, records show, and is named as a defendant in numerous civil suits.
Having spent many hours in prison (“very traumatic for me”), been taken on a “perp walk”past the full force of the New York press corps (“disgusting”), been called a “killer” in print (“my whole family was so upset”), faced tenacious criminal prosecution (“I didn’t feel that [the prosecutor] was the advocate for the people”) and prohibited from making a living after his exoneration ( "once again, another slap down") Rapetti was initially guarded as he sat down with ENR for an exclusive interview, shifting often in his window seat.
He soon relaxed, and even smiled and laughed as he recounted the certain unexpected details of his trial. One of his lawyers, for example, was afraid of heights, and would not go above the third floor when he gave them a tour of the construction site. Rapetti credits much of his defense’s success to his attorneys’ hands-on approach to the case and his eyes lit up as he explained that many of the strategies were his ideas. He said he personally helped construct the crane model the defense used to make their case, suggested re-creating the conditions of the collapse in an experiment using the fallen crane in a vacant lot, and walked the lawyers through daily operations on a job site.
As he had throughout the trial, on this day he wore a pin of the Italian Catholic Saint Padre Pio on the buttonhole of his white, Nike polo-style shirt -- a pin he says he has worn every day since a friend gave it to him to help him through “difficult times.” Clearly, those hardships have not ended with his acquittal, and during our conversation he showed that he is facing them with determination, acceptance, perseverance and cautious optimism.
ENR: 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. So it was a year-long experience.
ENR: Was showing them the job site your idea or their idea?
WR: It was my idea because there was no way … That was my fear that nobody could really understand this industry and what actually really goes on past the books that everyone believes are true. This industry, it’s got its own engine, and if you don’t really know how it runs, it’s hard to understand, and that was my fear from day one.
ENR: How did they respond to this “training”?
WR: They were great. Arthur was exceptional. John was a little more reluctant because he was afraid of heights. John wouldn’t go above the third floor, but Arthur went right up. Even my experts, I took them up to explain to them the processes. The last three months [before the trial] were more intense. I was there [in their offices] every night after work. [When] I was not there, I was putting together the model on the weekends. Very stressful.
ENR: You were still working in the lead up to the trial?
WR: Right. I’m a Local 14 operating engineer, and I was on non-licensing equipment.
ENR: When were your licenses taken away?
WR: They took them January 5 . 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 pm, 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]. They said I was going to be arraigned about 2 pm. Then they made the big “perp walk.” There were about 100 plus reporters. It was disgusting. They made me out to be a murderer.
ENR: 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.
ENR: And when it actually happened? One of the witnesses said that you were repeating, “They were my friends. They had babies.” Do you even remember everything that you were feeling at the time?
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. To lose them is … 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.
ENR: One of them was your neighbor …
WR: He used to be my neighbor. He moved to the next town over. He was having rough times. He was a strong guy. He was very able. He went to work with the dock builders, and he asked me for help. I was going to help him and the engineers. I used him a couple of guys on the riggings, and he was good. He was safe. He didn’t do anything that he didn’t understand. It was sad. It was just a guy trying to make a living.
ENR: And you’re still in touch with many of their families?
ENR: How did they react to your acquittal?
WR: They were ecstatic. They were so happy for me. They all called or stopped by. It was a good feeling to have their support during and after.
ENR: 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 don’t think they understood this case, number one. And I don’t think they understand my devotion to what I did. I grew up in this. I don’t think really did their homework. I think they wanted a scapegoat.
ENR: 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 of [its] stories. 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.” This is what they get away with. I don’t have a subscription to ENR, but a friend of mine is an avid subscriber, and he was saying, “[ENR is] doing a great job. [They’re] just saying the facts.” That’s all I wanted. I didn’t want the sensationalism. I’m 30 years in the business. No violations, with an exceptional track record. And [then-Manhattan District Attorney Robert] Morgenthau is waving a sling saying I cheat because I didn’t spend the money on sling. To do that is disgusting. I did the right thing all my life.
ENR: Do you have any thoughts on the city’s ban on synthetic slings? [In 2008, shortly after the crane collapse he Department of Buildings banned the use of slings unless specifically required by the crane’s manufacturer. Ed.]
WR: It’s their prerogative. Nylon slings have been serving the industry for years. We proved that it was not the slings. So if it makes them feel more comfortable, so be it. In the rigging industry, the nylons are used in incredible situations and weights. For them to ban nylons, it’s just a fear thing. A lot of the manufacturers recommendations are not in the hands of people doing the work, and I think that got a light shined on [in the trial].
ENR: What moments in particular symbolized in your opinion the desperation in the prosecution?
WR: They were attacking the personal details in people’s lives.
ENR: I was kind of surprised by the prosecutor comparing them to …
WR: La Casa Nostra. She compared me!
ENR: Compared you?
WR: The reference was, “Having Rapetti Rigging handling the slings was like having La Casa Nostra handling the banking system of the United States.” It was disgusting. It’s disgusting that she used an Italian reference because I’m Italian. They went through me with a fine-toothed comb. There’s nothing. Zero. For her to bring up that reference was disgusting. They were supposed to be the advocate for the people, and I didn’t feel that she was the advocate for the people.
ENR: What’s next? You still have lots more to do, right?
WR: Now I have to go through a hearing in front of a judge and try to get my operating license back, and my rigging license. The rigging license is now expired. I never renewed. They suspended the crane. The crane license had nothing to do with that day. Why didn’t they suspend my driver’s license because I drove to the job? It’s the same right and privilege. They want to take away my rigging license, I understand it because that was what was going on that day. I wasn’t operating the crane. The operating license was not needed by city requirements.
ENR: What happens if the Department of Buildings doesn’t budge?
WR: I’ll keep fighting.
ENR: 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 your chin up. That day [of my acquittal], I was offered three jobs. They were jobs that were going to be offered beforehand, but I didn’t have my licenses.
ENR: Did they assume that since you were acquitted you could go right back to work?
WR: Immediately. So did I! I was like, “Okay, I can go to the union hall, and go back on a crane.” And, bang! Monday morning, there was the letter. Yeah, just like when they knocked on my door after being locked up. Registered mail, bang! Once again, another slap-down. I feel my only help will come through the industry.
ENR: You said it’s been difficult to get your life back. What’s the road there?
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. I don’t even know if I want it, it’s just the point of not being able to have it now. It’s weird. It’s hard to explain.
ENR: You’re clearly not afraid of heights.
WR: [Laughs] Not at all. I feel safer up there than I do downstairs. I grew up in a crane yard, through DeFilippis Crane Service. That was my uncle and my father. When I was a kid, the yard was in Flushing Airport in College Point, and I used to climb up the booms in the backyard and watch the planes take off and land.
ENR: 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?” I had a lot of support in the industry, which was very important. I hope there’s more interaction between the city agencies and the men actually doing the work. More of a realization that what we do every day should not be taken for granted, and the tower crane industry and all of its workers are an underappreciated group of dedicated, hardworking and safe workers.
- Interview by Adam Klasfeld