Overturn Building Manager Convictions in Bronx Fire

Chief Leader - March 02, 2010

by ARI PAUL

Firefighter, Lieut. Perished

A Bronx Supreme Court Justice Feb. 24 overturned the negligent homicide conviction of a building manager and a management company in the 2005 Black Sunday fire that killed a Firefighter and fire officer on the grounds that the jury did not have enough evidence to render a guilty verdict.

Lieut. Curtis Meyran and Firefighter John G. Bellew died Jan. 23, 2005 when they were forced to jump from the fourth floor of 236 East 178th St. in Tremont along with four other FDNY members who sustained serious injuries when they could not gain access to the fire escape, with an illegal partition wall partly responsible.

The two tenants, Rafael Castillo and Caridad Coste, were acquitted on all charges last February, but building manager Cesar Rios and the liability company that was listed as the building's owner were found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment by a separate jury.

UFA: No One Held Accountable

Justice Margaret Clancy, however, granted the defense's motion to set aside the verdicts for Mr. Rios and the liability company, finding that the jury did not have sufficient evidence that they knew about the dangerous conditions in the building that contributed to the deaths.

The ruling angered the fire unions. Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy said in a statement, "Today's unfortunate ruling means that no one will be held accountable for a fire in an illegally subdivided apartment that caused the death of two New York City firefighters and seriously injured four others. There are thousands of illegally subdivided occupancies throughout the five boroughs. The justice system must find a way to enforce building laws that protect firefighters and hold those accountable who violate these laws."

Last summer, defense lawyers asked for an investigation into the verdict after it was discovered that Karen Krell, who served on the jury that convicted Mr. Rios, sent a Facebook message to Firefighter Brendan Crawley, a witness for the prosecution, during the trial, saying, "I'm awed at what you and the others went through, and what you yourself still continue to go through." Justice Clancy stated last week that while this was of serious concern, it was immaterial to her decision to overturn the convictions.

Lawyer: FDNY At Fault

Neal Comer, the attorney for the liability company, welcomed the ruling, but also argued that much of the blame for the two deaths lay with the FDNY, noting that department protocol requires that whenever responders are on the roof of a fire building there must be water trained on the floor below them.

"They didn't do that, and they didn't do it I think because there was an equipment problem," Mr. Comer said. "The communication equipment that these men were carrying was apparently so poor, the chiefs on the ground were unable to communicate to these guys upstairs because there was no water on the fire beneath them."

During last year's trial the defense put some of the blame on then-Commissioner Thomas Von Essen's decision in 2000 to stop issuing safety ropes to firefighters. The FDNY re-issued the ropes after the fatal fire.

Lays Blame on Victims

Mr. Comer noted last week that retired Firefighter Jeff Cool, who jumped from the building but survived, was saved because he had a rope. He added that both Mr. Meyran and Mr. Bellew got vibrating alerts that their oxygen tanks were running low.

"They were in a position to get out," he said. "Testimony made clear they ignored those vibe alerts."

After the decision was issued in the Bronx courtroom, Mr. Cool, a key witness for the prosecution, was reported to have called the ruling a "disgrace," and said that he hoped Justice Clancy could "sleep at night" after overturning the convictions.

Mr. Comer retorted, "She should sleep at night."