Reporting Irene Cornell
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Opening statements began Monday in the criminal trial of three men charged in a deadly fire at the former Deutsche Bank Building.
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Mitchell Alvo, Jeffrey Melofchik and Salvatore DePaola are charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the deaths of firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino in 2007.
Prosecutor Brian Fields said Monday that they committed “reckless crimes” by letting a break in a crucial firefighting water pipe go unfixed.
DePaola, Melofchik and Alvo say they didn’t realize what the pipe was, and the firefighters’ lives were endangered by many other hazards in the building. Mostly, they say they’re small-time scapegoats for a fire fueled by others’ mistakes.
The defendants were supervisors at the construction company hired to demolish the building that was irreparably damaged when the falling south tower of the World Trade Center ripped a 15-story gash into the structure on Sept. 11, 2001. The impact heavily damaged the bank building and filled it with toxic debris.
On Aug. 18, 2007, a construction worker’s discarded cigarette sparked a fire that tore through several stories of the building. Beddia, 53, and Graffagnino, 33, became trapped on the burning 14th floor. They died of smoke inhalation after their oxygen tanks ran out.
Investigators found numerous violations that prosecutors say caused the firefighters’ deaths.
The fire department, which was supposed to inspect the building every 15 days, hadn’t done so in more than a year. Building, environmental and labor inspectors didn’t realize that stairwell barriers meant to contain toxins hadn’t been built to let firefighters get through.
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The city and general contractor Bovis Lend Lease acknowledged mistakes. Bovis agreed to finance a $10 million memorial fund for slain firefighters’ families, and the fire department created dozens of inspection and auditing jobs, among other responses.
Melofchik, 49, was Bovis’ site safety manager. Alvo, 58, was the toxin-cleanup director for subcontractor John Galt Corp. DePaola, 56, was a Galt foreman.
Alvo and the company have elected to have a judge decide their cases. She’ll hear evidence simultaneously with the jury, which will render a verdict for DePaola and Melofchik after a trial expected to last three months or more.
If convicted, the men could face up to 15 years in prison, and the company could face a $10,000 fine.
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