NY Post - June 30, 2011by LAURA ITALIANO
Fresh from their stunning acquittal of a second construction supervisor, jurors in the Deutsche Bank manslaughter trial lashed out at Manhattan prosecutors, who they say failed to hold the right people accountable for the 2007 deaths of firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino.
Top among the true culprits? The fire department itself, jurors said -- for failing to do the required inspections, thus allowing glaring safety violations to fester for months in the toxic, 9/11-damaged death-trap high rise.
"More people! More people were responsible," the jury foreman told reporters today minutes after announcing the not-guilty verdict against one of the trial's three defendants, Jeffrey Melofchik, who as safety manager during the building's demolition had signed off on a safety checklist every day despite flagrant problems.
Of Melofchik's two co-defendants, asbestos crew leader Salvatore DePaola was acquitted of all charges by the same jury on Tuesday; asbestos abatement director Mitchel Alvo had chosen a non-jury trial, and is awaiting a verdict by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Rena Uviller.
Graffagnino's widow, Linda, wished to express only gratitude for the department -- and the wish that the tragedy is never repeated.
"The NYC Fire Dept has been there for me and my family from day one," she told The Post. "I would hope that everyone involved can learn from their mistakes and hope that something like this will never happen again."
But jurors were furious -- especially given that there was a firehouse right across the street from the building.
"You got the fire department -- they should have been inspecting at that building," said the foreman, Keith Spencer, 41, of East Harlem.
And where were the city buildings inspectors, and the honchos from the contracting companies, and from the building's owners, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the foreman said he and his fellow jurors wanted to know
""This was entirely the fault of the FDNY. They [prosecutors] went after the wrong people. They were in such a haste to go after the wrong people because they needed to blame somebody and needed a smokescreen," agreed juror Lynette Cedeno, 50, of the Lower East Side.
"They [the FDNY] did not come out and inspect," agreed juror Rosemary Cardillo, a retired real estate broker from Midtown
"If they had come in and did their inspection, every 15 days as required, they would have been aware of the barriers in the stairwell, and of the standpipe not working," Cardillo said.
"And the firefighters wouldn't have come in not knowing this was a mess. Instead, it was just like a perfect storm."
All three defendants had been charged with manslaughter and reckless endangerment in an indictment that was announced with great fanfare back in 2008 by then-DA Robert Morgenthau.
In his investigation report on the two deaths, Morgenthau, too, had conceded that many agencies, and many factors, had contributed to the tragedy. Fire officials in particular, he wrote, repeatedly ignored their own inspection rules. But he decided to prosecute only the three individuals and one subcontractor, the John Galt Corp, explaining then that government agencies are generally immune from prosecutions.
"Everyone failed the Deutsche Bank building and the two firefighters," Morgenthau, who retired from office 18 months ago, said today. "Certainly they have made major changes in the way things are handled," he added, pointing to safety inspection reforms that the DA's office spearheaded.
Still, for three months, the jury had heard evidence of the old ways -- blocked stairwells, debris-strewn floors, and -- most significantly -- a 42-foot breach in the basement standpipe that should have been intact to supply firefighter hoses.
They heard of the utter failure by the army of federal, state and city inspectors who were on site daily, but apparently never checked the pipes in the basement. Ultimately, jurors said, they could not in good faith lay blame only at the feet of the two men they'd been asked to judge -- men they couldn't be sure were even aware of the standpipe breach.
"I didn't think anybody should be blamed for what happened," Melofchik himself said as he left court, smiling. "It was just a tragic event, and the fact that they ignored everybody else and just picked the three of us, I thought, was totally wrong."
The FDNY declined to comment.
Additional reporting by Chuck Bennett and Zach Crizer