NEW YORK – The lone person criminally charged in a construction crane collapse that killed seven people was acquitted Thursday after challenging the conclusion prosecutors, federal regulators and city officials had all reached about what caused the accident.
Crane rigger William Rapetti's acquittal shifts the debate over responsibility for the March 2008 collapse into civil court, where some of the roster of lawsuits against Rapetti and others are due to start going to trial next month. His criminal trial — which offered competing accounts of bad crane parts and poor judgment — is likely to help shape the civil cases, attorneys say.
The collapse — and a second one in New York that killed two people two months later — raised questions about crane safety around the country, spurring new inspections and other measures from New York to Chicago to Dallas.
A red-eyed Rapetti hugged his sobbing wife, Audrey, after Manhattan state Supreme Court Judge Roger Hayes cleared him and his company, Rapetti Rigging Services Inc., of manslaughter and other charges that could have sent him to prison for up to 15 years. Rapetti also was acquitted of a tax-filing charge punishable by up to a year in jail.
Rapetti had declined a jury for the nearly monthlong trial, which included technical details of crane design, emotional accounts from survivors of the collapse and even a field trip by the judge to see the wreckage in a police storage lot.
Rapetti, 49, declined to comment as he left court.
"I can't say we're happy; we're relieved," said his lawyer, Arthur Aidala. "(Prosecutors) wanted to portray him as reckless, Wild Bill Rapetti, and that just wasn't substantiated by the facts."
Prosecutors say Rapetti did a recklessly inadequate job of securing the nearly 200-foot-tall crane as it was being extended upward on a street near the U.N. headquarters in midtown Manhattan.
Rapetti's lawyer said the rigger did his work carefully, but that the crane was unsteady because of engineering decisions and shoddy welding that weren't Rapetti's responsibility.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said prosecutors were "extremely disappointed" by the verdict.
The crane toppled onto a residential block, killing six construction workers and a tourist, hurting two dozen others and leaving a swath of damage. Killed were tourist Odin Torres, 28, of Hialeah, Fla., and construction workers Wayne Bleidner, 51; Clifford Canzona, 45; Brad Cohen, 54; Santino Gallone, 37; Anthony Mazza, 39; and Aaron Stephens, 45.
A lawyer for Bleidner's widow, Denise, said she had found Rapetti's trial upsetting to follow, but she understood the judge's decision.
"What I make of it is that there are clearly multiple causes for the calamity," said the attorney, Howard S. Hershenhorn. His client is suing Rapetti's company and others.
Prosecutors, city building officials and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration attributed the collapse to the failure of four heavy-duty polyester straps that Rapetti and his crew were using temporarily to fasten a more than 11,000-pound steel collar around the crane.
The crane manufacturer called for using eight of the $50 straps for the job, but Rapetti used four — one seriously worn — even though six new straps were provided to him, according to prosecutors and testimony from others involved in the construction. He also didn't pad the straps to keep them from fraying against the crane's metal edges, a precaution outlined on the straps' own warning label.
The worn strap broke, overloading the remaining straps and breaking them, prosecutors said. The collar then shot down the crane, breaking beams that tied the crane to the building under construction, the investigations found.
Rapetti, who was injured in the collapse, didn't testify. His lawyers argued that the rigger was keenly aware of safety and followed accepted norms in using the straps, and that they weren't to blame for the collapse.
An engineer hired by Rapetti's lawyers suggested the rig fell because of welding and other problems in the metal beams that tethered the crane to the building under construction — and because the crane wasn't anchored to the ground as cranes commonly are, according to the engineer who designed it. That engineer testified that he believed the design was safe nonetheless.
Attorneys involved in the lawsuits surrounding the collapse routinely packed the courtroom in Rapetti's criminal trial, a sign that the theories and evidence aired there may be echoed in the civil cases. They seek to place blame on far more players than Rapetti.
Jurors in lawsuits can assign relative responsibility to different parties, so "it becomes more of an, 'OK, we've got all the right people in the room, we'll let the jury sort (it) out," said Andrew Ness, a construction lawyer with Washington-based Howrey LLP who isn't involved in the crane collapse cases.
New York's 2008 crane collapses led to the resignation of the city's top building official and a host of new crane safety measures, ranging from hiring more inspectors to banning the use of nylon straps unless a crane manufacturer recommends them.
About 60 to 80 people die in crane-related incidents nationwide in an average year, according to OSHA, which doesn't have figures on the deadliest collapses. Others include a 1989 crane collapse in San Francisco that killed five people and a July 2008 crane collapse in Houston that took four lives.