NEW YORK – A construction crane owner was acquitted of manslaughter and all other charges Thursday in the May 2008 collapse of a 200-foot-tall rig that snapped apart, killed two workers and fueled concerns about crane safety.
James Lomma sat expressionless and looking frozen as a judge announced his verdict in the only criminal trial stemming from the accident on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Lomma chose not to have a jury in the two-month trial.
The slain workers' relatives shook their heads as Lomma and his two companies were acquitted. They, their lawyers and a city councilwoman called the verdict an alarming signal for the safety of those who work and live around cranes.
Lomma's lawyers had said the case misconstrued an accident as a crime and wrongly blamed him for it. One of them, Paul Shechtman, called the outcome "a bittersweet day because it remains true that two young men were killed in a crane accident."
"But a conscientious judge found rightly that the fault was not Jimmy Lomma's," said Shechtman, who represented Lomma's companies, which were acquitted of the same charges. The attorney who represented Lomma, Andrew M. Lankler, declined to comment.
The case marked Manhattan prosecutors' second bid to hold people criminally responsible for two deadly crane collapses that came within two months of each other in 2008. Two manslaughter trials have ended in acquittals, but a mechanic who worked with Lomma pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.
Together, the fallen cranes killed nine people and spurred new safety measures in New York and in some other cities — scrutiny recently renewed after another Manhattan crane collapse killed a worker this month.
"Although we are disappointed with the judge's verdict, each case we have brought in this area has put increased scrutiny on the construction industry as a whole and has had a cascading effect on safety practices," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said in a statement.
The crane was starting work on the 14th floor of what was to be a 32-story apartment building when the top portions of the rig came off, crashed into a building across the street and plummeted to the ground.
The crane operator, Donald C. Leo, 30, died after nearly being decapitated. Ramadan Kurtaj, 27, a sewer company employee who was working on the ground, was pulled from the wreckage and died at a hospital.
"The judge took a knife to our family's heart by letting this man walk away," said Kurtaj's cousin, Xhevahire Kurtaj-Sinanaj. The family is originally from Peja, Kosovo.
The verdict also reverberated at City Hall. Council member Jessica Lappin — whose district encompasses both the 2008 crane collapse sites — said she feared "this verdict will send the wrong message" about crane and construction companies' safety responsibilities.
Prosecutors said the crane fell because Lomma had gotten a bargain-basement welding job to repair a crucial component: the turntable, which lets the upper parts of the rig swivel.
Lomma and mechanic Tibor Varganyi got estimates from known manufacturers. But to save money and repair time on a crane Lomma rented out for $50,000 a month, they instead hired a little-known Chinese company over the Internet, even after the company expressed reservations to Varganyi about its ability to do the job, according to prosecutors and testimony at the trial. Lomma didn't follow city inspectors' requirements for the repair, and the weld ultimately was too weak and poorly done to handle the crane's work, prosecutors said.
Varganyi, who pleaded guilty last year to criminally negligent homicide, testified that he was told Lomma wanted to save time and money. Varganyi is due to be sentenced in May and could be spared prison time.
The weld was in use for a month before, according to investigators, it failed and sent the crane's upper parts flying.
"The tragic deaths of two young men in this case showed the serious and fatal consequences that can result when profit is put ahead of safety," Vance said Thursday.
Lomma's lawyers said that he had gotten the repair done and tested responsibly — and that regardless, it didn't cause the collapse. The weld was strong enough for its workload, and it broke because the crane fell, not vice versa, according to the defense lawyers and their engineering experts.
By the defense account, the crane toppled because Leo let the heavy "headache ball" — the ball that weights the line used to hoist materials — get reeled into the tip of the crane, a problem known in the industry as "two-blocking."
With the crane at a fairly high angle that day, the impact of the ball sent the crane's long arm over backward and caused the collapse, the defense said.
Prosecutors "missed the actual cause of the accident because they had blinders on. Mr. Lomma (and his companies) acted properly," Lomma lawyer James Kim said in an opening statement.
State Supreme Court Justice Daniel P. Conviser announced his verdict but didn't explain his reasoning, as some judges choose to do.
The dead workers' families, who are suing Lomma and others, blasted the idea that the operator played a part in the collapse.
"It's just another low blow," said Leo's mother, Maria. "They blamed my son . ... How does this happen?"
In the earlier collapse, in March 2008, prosecutors charged a crane rigger with manslaughter and other counts. Another judge acquitted the rigger of all of them in 2010.
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