NEW YORK – The three men charged in the deaths of two firefighters in a blaze at a contaminated, condemned skyscraper at ground zero say they're scapegoats. Prosecutors say the men are to blame for disregarding and covering up a major safety hazard.
A judge was expected to rule Friday on whether to toss out manslaughter and other charges against Mitchel Alvo, Salvatore DePaola and Jeffrey Melofchik. They are the only people facing criminal charges after a fire that led city officials to acknowledge oversight mistakes.
Alvo, 58, DePaola, 56, Melofchik, 48, and the John Galt Corp., which was helping to take down the former Deutsche Bank building, have pleaded not guilty. If convicted, the men could face up to 15 years in prison.
The building was heavily damaged and filled with toxic debris when the World Trade Center's south tower collapsed into it on Sept. 11, 2001. A laborious process of dismantling the now government-owned building has taken years.
On Aug. 18, 2007, a construction worker's careless smoking sparked a fire that tore through several stories of the building.
Firefighters contended with a roster of hazards, including deactivated sprinklers, blocked stairwells, an air system that was supposed to control toxins but ended up concentrating smoke, and a break in a crucial firefighting water pipe called a standpipe.
With the standpipe severed, it took 67 minutes for the firefighters to get water by other means to fight the blaze.
Firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino became trapped on the burning 14th floor. They died of smoke inhalation after their oxygen tanks ran out.
The standpipe had broken during asbestos removal work in the building's basement in November 2006, Manhattan prosecutors say.
Alvo, Galt's director of abatement, and DePaola, a Galt foreman, ultimately had a 42-foot-long section of the standpipe cut up and removed from the building, according to prosecutors. Melofchik, site safety manager for general contractor Bovis Lend Lease, filled out checklists saying the building's fire suppression equipment was working despite the broken standpipe, prosecutors say.
"While (the three men) choose to point their fingers at other entities who they claim bear responsibility for the deaths of the two firefighters, this case is about these defendants and their actions that caused two deaths and nearly caused numerous others," Assistant District Attorney Noah D. Genel wrote in court papers in May.
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, the attorneys argue, the broken standpipe wasn't the key cause of the firefighters' deaths. They point to the many other hazards and failures that prosecutors and city officials have acknowledged.
"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 in July.
When the case was unveiled in December 2008, then-District Attorney Robert Morgenthau pointedly said there was blame to go around among the maze of government agencies and companies that had worked at the building during its dismantling.
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.
But Morgenthau said prosecuting officials would be fruitless because governments are generally immune from criminal prosecutions.
The city agreed to fire safety reforms, and Bovis agreed to pay the firefighters' families $10 million in a memorial fund.