2nd man acquitted in fatal ground zero fire

A construction company safety supervisor was acquitted Wednesday of all criminal charges in a blaze that killed two firefighters at a condemned ground zero building, a verdict that marked the second acquittal in the manslaughter case.

Jurors cleared Jeffrey Melofchik a day after acquitting asbestos-cleanup foreman Salvatore DePaola of the same charges. A judge continued weighing the charges against a third man and a company as jurors spoke out about a trial they called a case of blaming a few for the mistakes of many surrounding the August 2007 fire at the former Deutsche Bank building. It was being dismantled in a complicated process designed to contain toxins.

"It was just a project with a lot of difficult things going on, and I didn't think anybody should be blamed for what happened," an elated but composed Melofchik, 49, said as he left court with his wife, Audrey, and other friends and relatives. Some had exclaimed "yes!" on hearing "not guilty" to the second of two manslaughter charges.

"It was a tragic event, and the fact that they ignored everybody else and just picked the three of us, I thought, was totally wrong," Melofchik said.

The blaze, which killed firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph P. Graffagnino, spotlighted poor oversight of the building, which had been damaged and contaminated in the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Government agencies had missed inspections and failed to recognize dangers in the project's design.

Melofchik; DePaola, 56; and asbestos cleanup director Mitchel Alvo, 59, were the only people criminally charged in the fire. The John Galt Corp., which employed Alvo and DePaola, was the only company charged. The jury acquitted DePaola of all charges Tuesday.

"Everybody's a scapegoat," foreman Keith Spencer, a 41-year-old UPS worker, said as jurors left court Wednesday. "More people should have been accountable for this."

Alvo and the Galt company chose to have a judge decide the case against them; she has not said when she will rule.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said prosecutors respected the verdict and "hope that this prosecution brought necessary attention to the importance of safety in the construction and demolition industries."

A worker's careless smoking sparked the blaze, which tore through nine floors of the building. The firefighters died after being trapped in thick smoke and running out of air in their oxygen tanks.

Prosecutors said the critical factor in their deaths was a broken firefighting pipe, called a standpipe. Unable to use it, firefighters spent about an hour devising another way to get water on the flames on upper floors. In the meantime, the fire grew to deadly proportions, prosecutors said.

They said Alvo, DePaola and Melofchik knew the pipe had broken about eight months before. Under pressure not to let the cleanup lag, the men had the broken segment carted away and did nothing to repair or report it, prosecutors said. Nonetheless, Melofchik kept signing daily reports saying the building's fire-suppression system was working, according to evidence presented at the trial.

Defense lawyers said the men didn't realize the pipe's firefighting role and that the fire was fed by numerous hazards and regulators' mistakes.

Jurors said they weren't convinced that Alvo and Melofchik bore responsibility for the broken pipe, though they said they struggled more when deciding about Melofchik because of his safety-manager job. Ultimately, they felt it wasn't Alvo's job to identify and safeguard the standpipe, and testimony left questions about the extent of Melofchik's training in dealing with the pipe and whether he was aware of the break, jurors said.

And they came away from more than two months of testimony convinced that other problems had played too big a part in the deadly conditions to attribute the firefighters' deaths to the standpipe.

The project was supposed to be closely monitored by a list of government agencies. But it turned out that the Fire Department of New York hadn't inspected the building for more than a year, though it was required to do so every 15 days. Building, environmental and labor inspectors hadn't realized that firefighting would be complicated by some measures that had been undertaken to control toxins, including plywood stairwell barriers and a fan system that kept smoke in and pulled it down.

The stairwell barriers and, especially, the Fire Department's missed inspections made an impact on juror Rosemary Cardillo. "I felt as though, if they had come in and did their inspections, they would have been aware" of the problems before the fire, the retired real estate broker said.

To juror Lynette Cedeno, the case amounted to "blaming the little guy."

"Justice — it needs to start from the top, where people take responsibility for what their responsibility is, and not just pass it off," said Cedeno, 50, an occupational therapist who works for the city school system.

The city and Melofchik's employer, general contractor Bovis Lend Lease, acknowledged errors in dealing with the former bank building. The Fire Department created dozens of inspection and auditing jobs, and Bovis agreed to finance a $10 million memorial fund for slain firefighters' families, among other responses.

Then-District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said when the indictments were revealed that it would be pointless to try to prosecute the city because governments are generally immune from criminal prosecution, though individual officials and employees sometimes are charged with crimes.

Melofchik's lawyer, Edward J.M. Little, said he hoped the jury verdicts had sent prosecutors a message: "Because a case is sexy doesn't mean it should be brought."

"I think they've learned a lesson here," he said, but "it came at a terrible psychological cost for Jeff and his family."

Melofchik said he had been unable to work during the trial and had striven to keep the details from his sons, 16 and 18.

The last of the former bank building was taken down in February.


Jennifer Peltz can be reached at http://twitter.com/jennpeltz