FDNY Firefighter James Martin Testifies on Friends' Last Moments During Deutsche Bank Fire Trial

NY Daily News - May 06, 2011

by Melissa Grace AND Rich Schapiro

A firefighter choked up Thursday recalling the harrowing final moments of two colleagues who perished in the tragic Deutsche bank blaze.

James Martin held back tears describing how he tried to save Robert Beddia and Joe Graffagnino, whose oxygen tanks had run out of air.

The trio were fighting to escape down the 14th-floor stairwell of the condemned Ground Zero tower.

"The smoke was almost boiling. You could see it rolling," Martin testified at the trial of three construction supervisors accused of manslaughter for failing to maintain a crucial water pipe.

Graffagnino suddenly cried out - "Jimmy, I need air" - Martin said.

"I remember a very gasping voice," he said.

It was near-blackout conditions and Martin said after offering him his oxygen, he became disoriented and even smashed helmets with Graffagnino.

"I yelled at Joey. 'Joey get down," Martin said.

"I went to grab him and ... he started flailing."

"He fell backwards away from me ... I told him, 'I know the way out," the choked up firefighter testified.

"He didn't answer me."

Before conditions deteriorated, the men were carrying a dangerously rigged hose they extended up the side of the Liberty Street tower - because a key firefighting pipe in the basement had been cut.

Prosecutors say site safety manager Jeffrey Melofchik, abatement supervisor Michael Alvo and foreman Salvatore DePaola knew the pipe was severed months before the inferno and failed to repair it.

They counter that they did not understand the pipe's significance and that a series of government inspectors missed it too.

In dramatic testimony, Martin, who'd lost track of Beddia, made the gut-wrenching decision to leave his struggling comrades to get help.

As he stumbled away, disoriented and dizzied by smoke, he slammed into a wall and for a moment lost hope.

"I remember thinking that this is it," Martin said. "You're probably going to run out of air, and you're probably going to die."

"That probably lasted about a second before you say, 'You're a New York City fireman and you can do this. You're going to get them out. Everything is going to be all right.'"

Martin eventually got out and managed to send others back to the stairwell to reach Beddia, 33, and Graffagnino, 53.

But it was too late.

He said that at the hospital they were all taken to, he asked a cop if he knew how they were doing.

The officer looked at him and then looked at the ground shaking his head.

"As soon as he did that, I knew that this was a nightmare," Martin said.

Moments later, he spotted FDNY officials "with tears in their eyes."

"Immediately I found out that Joey and Bobby had passed away," he said.