NEW YORK – Three construction company figures have been unfairly blamed for a blaze that killed two firefighters in a condemned ground zero skyscraper where city officials have acknowledged oversight failures, defense lawyers said Monday.
Mitchel Alvo, Jeffrey Melofchik and Salvatore DePaola have pleaded not guilty to manslaughter in the August 2007 blaze at the former Deutsche Bank building. The three played various roles, ranging from asbestos-removal foreman to site safety manager, in a laborious process of dismantling the building, which was heavily damaged and contaminated with toxic debris in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Manhattan prosecutors say Alvo, Melofchik and DePaola knew that a vital firefighting water pipe was broken, did nothing about it and covered it up. The disabled pipe, called a standpipe, cost firefighters critical time in getting water on the flames, playing a crucial role in creating the smoky inferno that ultimately killed firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino, prosecutors say.
"All three of these defendants acted in a morally blameworthy and egregious manner," Assistant District Attorney Noah D. Genel said.
Defense lawyers say the men didn't realize the pipe was a standpipe — and they note that a raft of inspectors never flagged it. Regardless, it wasn't the key factor in the firefighters' deaths, the attorneys say, pointing to a host of other hazards and failures.
"Why are they scapegoating a few defenseless people at the bottom of the line?" Melofchik's lawyer, Edward J.M. Little, asked a judge at a hearing Monday.
"Because they didn't have the nerve" to indict government agencies or were unable to, Little said, pressing the judge to dismiss the case. A decision is expected in October.
When the case was unveiled in December 2008, then-District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said the city had made major mistakes. But he said prosecuting officials would be fruitless because governments are generally immune from criminal prosecutions.
The city agreed to fire safety reforms, and general contractor Bovis Lend Lease agreed to pay the slain firefighters' families $10 million in a memorial fund.
The blaze, sparked by a worker's careless smoking, spotlighted a building rife with fire perils, including the broken standpipe, deactivated sprinklers, stairwells that had been blocked to contain toxic debris and an air pressure system that was supposed to control toxins but ended up concentrating smoke.
The fire department hadn't inspected the building in more than a year, although it was supposed to do so every 15 days. Other city and state regulators also had been in the tower on a near-daily basis but didn't report the hazards.
The standpipe had broken when workers cut its supports to speed asbestos removal in the basement in November 2006, prosecutors say.
Alvo, director of abatement for project subcontractor John Galt Corp., and DePaola, a Galt foreman, ultimately had a 42-foot-long section of the standpipe cut up and removed from the building, Genel said. Melofchik, Bovis' site safety manager, filled out checklists saying the building's fire suppression equipment was working despite the hobbled standpipe, he said.
With the standpipe disabled, it took 67 minutes for the firefighters to get water by other means to combat the blaze on Aug. 18, 2007, according to a fire department report.
Beddia, 53, and Graffagnino, 33, died of smoke inhalation on the building's 14th floor.
Defense lawyers say that even if water had been supplied faster, it might well not have saved the firefighters' lives because of the other issues, particularly the air pressure system.
"They walked into a smoke chamber from which they could not escape," Little said.
But Genel said lack of water fed the mass of smoke.
The once 41-story tower has been a grim, lingering presence since the World Trade Center's south tower collapsed into it on Sept. 11. It is now owned by the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., a state rebuilding agency.
If convicted, Alvo, 58, Melofchik, 48, and DePaola, 55, each would face up to 15 years in prison.
The John Galt Corp. also has pleaded not guilty in the case. The company could face a $10,000 fine if convicted.