3 Men Indicted in Tower Blaze, but Not the CityDec 23, 2008
The Manhattan district attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, announced manslaughter charges on Monday against three construction supervisors and a subcontractor, saying their gross negligence in dismantling the former Deutsche Bank building played a critical role in the deaths of two firefighters who responded to a smoky blaze there in 2007.
Prosecutors chose not to seek criminal charges against New York City, despite assertions that its lapses also played a role in the tragedy, citing legal obstacles to such a case.
But the Bloomberg administration, facing civil lawsuits from the families of the firefighters who died 16 months ago, admitted the city’s complicity in their deaths and said it had instituted reforms to make sure such a tragedy never happened again.
The indictment focused on one subcontractor and three supervisors directly involved in the project at the building, which stands near ground zero in Lower Manhattan and was severely damaged in the attacks on the World Trade Center.
But as part of its agreement with prosecutors, the city acknowledged that the failure of the Fire and Buildings Departments to make required building inspections had allowed the unsafe conditions that ultimately doomed the two men, Firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino.
In a statement released on Monday, the city said, “We deeply regret the failures of our agencies to inspect and detect the conditions that contributed to the deaths of Firefighters Beddia and Graffagnino.” Several lawyers said the city’s statements could be construed as admissions of liability or culpability in the civil cases that the families have promised to file.
“This is somewhat remarkable in my judgment,” said Benjamin Brafman, who represented a family that sued the city after a relative died in the 2003 Staten Island Ferry crash, “because the admissions by the city suggest that it recognizes their responsibility, and could well expose the city to substantial judgments that may not even have to be litigated, given the breadth of these admissions.”
Bovis Lend Lease, an international construction management company that oversaw the work at the former bank tower, also escaped an indictment and released a statement as part of an agreement with the district attorney’s office. The company said it did not challenge the “factual conclusions of the investigation and acknowledged that some of its supervisors had not conducted inspections that would have revealed that the standpipe was not in working order.”
“Bovis regrets the failures that contributed to the deaths of Firefighters Beddia and Graffagnino,” the statement said. “We recognize that nothing can bring them back and that their families have suffered terribly.”
City officials declined to discuss any civil suits to come.
Mary Costello, a spokeswoman for Bovis, said that the company “made no admission of civil or criminal liability.”
The three construction supervisors, Mitchel Alvo, Jeffrey Melofchik and Salvatore DePaola, were arraigned on charges of second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment, after a 16-month investigation by the district attorney’s office. A subcontractor, the John Galt Corporation, which performed the demolition and asbestos abatement at the building, faces the same charges. All three men and the company pleaded not guilty.
The blaze, in August 2007, was started by a carelessly tossed cigarette from one of the crew decontaminating the 41-story tower, investigators said. But they said the inability of firefighters to escape the inferno was directly tied to the fact that city inspectors never noted that construction crews had cut and dismantled a 42-foot section of the standpipe, which was designed to provide water in case of a fire. Firefighters also found that their primary means of escape, the staircases, had been improperly sealed, according to the investigation.
The indictment charges that in the fall of 2006, Mr. Alvo, an executive of Galt, and Mr. De Paola, a Galt foreman, directed workers in the basement of the tower to cut a 42-foot section of standpipe into pieces and haul it away after half of the pipe had fallen to the ground, leaving a second section hanging precariously overhead.
For at least eight months afterward, the indictment said, Mr. Melofchik, a Bovis site safety supervisor, filed daily reports that failed to indicate that the building’s critical standpipe and sprinkler system were inoperable.
Edward J. M. Little, a lawyer for Mr. Melofchik, expressed “disappointment” in the decision to indict, considering that “Mr. Morgenthau himself admitted that the fire was a perfect storm, and that everything that could have gone wrong went wrong.”
“The real responsibility here belongs to federal agencies, city agencies and even the Fire Department itself, as Mayor Bloomberg has also admitted,” Mr. Little said.
Mr. Morgenthau said that despite daily visits to the work site, city building inspectors never went to the part of the basement where the gap in the standpipe existed. Nor did the inspectors do anything about the contractor’s failure to ensure that passageways and stairwells remained free of obstructions, he said.
The Fire Department, in turn, never made the inspections required by its regulations. “As a result, firefighters rushed into the building with no idea of the obstacles they would face fighting the fire,” he said.
Work crews at the tower, at 130 Liberty Street, have largely decontaminated all but five floors of what is now a 26-story structure. Demolition is scheduled to restart in the spring. The final cost, according to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, will be about $200 million.
The state corporation has owned the building since 2004.
The families of Firefighters Beddia and Graffagnino said prosecutors had not gone far enough in the criminal indictments, and vowed civil lawsuits.
“Only indicting three people? A lot more could have been done on that,” said Firefighter Graffagnino’s father, Joseph Graffagnino Sr. “They dumped it on the scapegoat, which is Galt. They could have done that the day after the fire.”
Michael A. Barasch, a lawyer representing the Beddia family, called the indictment bittersweet, with the city seeming to duck criminal culpability through a legal concept known as sovereign immunity.
The Beddia family has already accepted $5 million from Bovis as part of an agreement with the district attorney’s office, a move that Mr. Barasch conceded could mean a smaller amount of damages in the event of a jury trial, when jurors may feel the family has already been compensated.
“It could have that effect, and if it does, it doesn’t matter, because that’s not the most important thing now,” he said. “They can’t bring back the boys that died, but they can make their deaths prevent other deaths.”
At a press conference on Monday at the office of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, its president, Stephen J. Cassidy, called the case one that “highlights the failures of the leadership of the New York City Fire Department that led to this tragedy.”
Mr. Morgenthau said the city was protected from indictment in large part because municipalities are generally immune from prosecution absent a waiver. Rather than litigate the issue, he said his office was able to get an agreement with the city to institute a wide-ranging set of reforms that would help prevent a repeat of the fatal accident.
In part, the city has agreed to establish a force within the Fire Department whose sole job will be to do inspections at any buildings undergoing construction, demolition or decontamination.
Mr. Morgenthau’s office also reached an agreement with Bovis that requires the company to hire a fire safety manager approved by the district attorney for all its New York projects, as well as a site safety director with responsibility for New York operations. Bovis also agreed to fire those responsible for the failures at the former Deutsche Bank building.
The prosecutor said it was better to institute reforms than to prosecute the company and put hundreds, if not thousands, of people out of work.
“Our goal is to put in place procedures which will prevent a disaster of the magnitude of the Deutsche Bank fire and to make sure that firefighters are never again exposed to the risks they faced in that fire,” he said.