The deaths of firefighters Joseph P. Graffagnino and Robert Beddia at the Deutsche Bank building at Ground Zero in 2007 needlessly replayed the tragedy that unfolded on Sept. 11, 2001, when 343 of New York’s Bravest died. The high-rise bank building, adjacent to the World Trade Center, was damaged in the attack and six years later was being cleaned of asbestos and demolished.
State Supreme Court Judge Rena Uviller and a jury in Manhattan are now deciding whether to convict three contractor site supervisors and subcontracting firm John Galt Corp. of criminal charges in connection with the deaths. If the judge and jurors do convict and possibly send the managers to jail, they will have extended the tragedy of the attack even further.
There were numerous dangerous mistakes by the defendants, and civil financial damages against them may rightfully pile as high as a New York skyscraper. But no one committed manslaughter and no one should be convicted of it.
Through the 10-week trial, the public learned the evidence against the three men. Although there were many poor practices at the site, the evidence shows that the prosecution and the grand jury acted out of emotion rather than a clear sense of justice in charging Mitchel Alvo and Salvatore DePaola, both employed by John Galt Corp., the asbestos abatement subcontractor, and Jeffrey Melofchik, who worked for Bovis Lend Lease, the construction manager.
The Galt firm is also a defendant and should have never been allowed on the job because of questions about ties to organized crime figures, but the firm is now defunct and its conviction would not punish anyone.
Manslaughter statutes are effective against drunk drivers or those who shoot guns in populated areas. Prosecutors use manslaughter statutes against people involved in construction fatalities as a measure of last resort for a public frustrated with and fearful about the accidents.
As a rule, the causes of workplace accidents are too complex and difficult for most prosecutors to explain to juries and judges.
In the Deutsche bank case, the prosecution lasted months, but the defense only days.
One argument for acquittal is that the long series of events involved in the deaths—asbestos abatement with work areas under negative-air containment; poor fire safety practices throughout the project; a standpipe cut to speed work, depriving the sprinkler system and firefighters of water; a lighted cigarette thrown away by a worker, igniting debris; spreading fire and smoke; disoriented firefighters extending their time in the building as their air supply ran out—could not have been reasonably anticipated by the site supervisors.
Another reason is that the circumstances of the firefighters’ deaths from smoke inhalation suggest that there were numerous random factors and decisions that affected the outcome. The firefighters who died were not attempting to rescue any construction workers who they believed were trapped. They were on a hose crew attempting to get water on the source of the fire in a confusing physical surrounding when their air supply ran out.