UES Crane Collapse Company Owner Concerned About 'Bottom Line,' DA Says
MANHATTAN SUPREME COURT — The tower crane company owner whose rig collapsed four years ago on the Upper East Side, killing two workers — including a man who was about to get married — took several negligent risks out of concern for the "bottom line and nothing else," prosecutors said at the opening of his trial Tuesday.
Sections of the massive crane fell 200 feet from the construction site at 333 E. 91st St. on May 30, 2008, killing crane operator Donald Leo, 30, of New Jersey, who was three weeks away from his wedding, and Ramadan Kurtaj, 27, of The Bronx, a sewer worker who was on the street at the time.
"They were killed because a wealthy man was concerned about the bottom line and nothing else," Assistant District Attorney Eli Cherkasky said in opening statements Tuesday before a courtroom packed with the victims' relatives, including family members of Kurtaj who flew in from their native Kosovo.
When prosecutors played a video of the aftermath of the horrific collapse, Leo's mother, Maria, was reduced to tears and said she hoped that crane company owner, James Lomma, would be held accountable.
"If he gets away with that it just speaks volumes about the way people are seen in general," she said, adding that it will send the message that "just because he has money and power he can get away with it."
Prosecutors charge that Lomma, who owns New York Crane and Equipment, ordered a poorly made crane turntable part from China to replace a broken piece.
The problem with the crane was identified at a different construction site on West 46th Street and the Department of Buildings laid out orders for Lomma to correct the problem with a proper replacement, prosecutors said.
Two of Lomma's companies, New York Crane and J.F. Lomma Inc., are also charged in the indictment.
Cherkasky argued that Lomma stood to lose millions in profit by not quickly replacing the cracked turntable part, so he agreed to a deal with the unknown overseas company in order to avoid a two-year wait for a more expensive version of the same part from the crane's manufacturer.
Lomma, 66, faces manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide charges for the deaths and could go to prison for 15 years if convicted at the bench trial in front of Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Daniel Conviser.
Leo was nearly decapitated when he fell from 140 feet in the incident, two weeks prior to his planned wedding to fiancee Janine Belcastro, who was in court Tuesday. Some 300 guests were expected to attend their nuptials, which never took place, according to family lawyer Bernadette Panzella.
Leo's father, Donald, also a crane worker, rushed to the scene and cried over his son's lifeless body, the ADA said.
"There isn't a day that passes when he doesn't wish it was him," Cherkasky said.
Witness Kenneth Clark, a worker at the site, said the collapsing crane made "a God awful noise" and sent him scrambling for cover. When he emerged, he rushed to help Leo, but it was too late.
Kurtaj, who was trapped in the rubble, suffered from massive head trauma and died at the hospital shortly after he was removed from the debris.
"If [Lomma] knew ahead of time that the crane could have collapsed it was [as bad as] if he went and killed him himself," his father, Uke, said through an Albanian translator.
Lomma's former deputy, Tibor Varganyi, admitted to ordering the faulty parts but entered into a plea deal with prosecutors and is expected to testify against his former boss.
But one of Lomma's attorneys, James Kim, said that the DA mischaracterized the cause of the collapse — saying that "misuse" by the company operating the rig at the time was to blame.
"This case is about a rush to judgement," Kim argued. "From the moment the crane collapsed, the people focused on the weld and the bearing without conducting a thorough forensic investigation."
Kim also refuted the idea that Lomma was set to lose money on renting his crane if it was not fixed quickly, arguing that the contractors were all obliged to rent the cranes until they were repaired, he said.
"[The contractors] had to pay until crane was repaired and up and running so there was no lost revenue at issue here," he said.
Crane rigger William Rapetti was similarly tried for manslaughter for a fatal crane collapse on the East Side in March 2008, just three months before the Lomma crane fell.
Seven people were killed on East 51st Street when a 400-foot crane that Rapetti was responsible for buckled, killing several of Rapetti's own employees.
He was acquitted of manslaughter and various other charges after a lengthy bench trial before another judge.
Testimony was expected to continue on Wednesday in Lomma's trial with Leo's father and other witnesses.