By Shayna Jacobs
MANHATTAN SUPREME COURT — More than an hour after a raging fire burned through several stories of the Deutsche Bank building, a soot-covered firefighter named Joseph Graffagnino was pulled from the burning skyscraper.
By then he was unrecognizable to one of his closest friends, another responder, who frantically tried to pump life into the lungs of the dying 33 year old after the Aug. 18, 2007 blaze, the DA said in opening arguments of the Deutsche Bank fire trial on Monday.
Graffagnino, a Brooklyn father of two, and fellow firefighter, Robert Beddia, 53, died of smoke inhalation as they waited more than an hour for water to reach the 14th floor of the burning building, according to the DA.
Prosecutors have argued the defendants, Mitchel Alvo, 52, Salvatore DePaola, 56, and Jeffrey Melofchik, 49, all of whom had been contracted to demolish the building, were aware of the risks when they knocked out 42 feet of standpipe in the basement, making it impossible for water to get to the 14th floor. The three men and the John Galt Corp. are facing manslaughter charges in the deaths of Graffagnino and Beddia.
The afternoon of the 2007 fire, 130 Liberty St., a building that stood in the shadow of the World Trade Center and was irreparably damaged on 9/11, had once again become a scene of chaos. There were incessant shouts of "mayday" blaring through emergency radios as rescuers scrambled to find the trapped firefighters, all while trying to extinguish the massive fire, the DA said Monday.
Prosecutors said that water supply would have reached the Engine 24 responders on the 14th floor of the 41-story building in five minutes had the three demolition supervisors on trial for manslaughter not dismantled the standpipe so they could pass unrelated asbestos inspections and cut costs.
Beddia and Graffagnino were the unfortunate victims of the "calculated" negligence on the part of the defendants, but hundreds of other workers were also at risk on a daily basis because of the supervisors' conduct, Assistant District Attorney Brian Fields said Monday.
"They died because the defendants gambled with their lives," Fields said. "The evidence will establish that these defendants knew the building was a death trap. They knew that the risk of fire was tremendous."
Beddia's relatives were present Monday morning, along with several FDNY representatives dressed in their formal uniforms. The father of Graffagnino had pledged not to attend the trial in protest of the Manhattan District Attorney's decision not to bring charges against the city or Bovis Lend Lease, which was the general contractor overseeing demolition of the building.
The DA's office, under former top prosecutor Robert Morgenthau, agreed not to charge Bovis Corporation in exchange for their implementation of safety provisions during the remainder of the Deutsche Bank demolition project. The DA's office conceded that the city was also at fault, but did not charge anyone from the Department of Buildings, or other agencies.
Morgenthau issued a statement in December 2008 announcing the indictment and defending their decision to charge only the site workers and the Galt Corp.
"Over the last 16 months we have interviewed more than 150 people, subpoenaed and examined over three million documents and presented more than 80 witnesses to a Grand Jury; the transcript of that testimony is more than 6,500 pages long. We now know what happened at the Deutsche Bank building: what caused the fire, what went wrong and who is responsible," the former DA said.
Critics excoriated the DA's office for letting the city, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and the general contractor slide.
The defendants face manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment charges.
Alvo, DePaola and Melofchik face up to 25 years in prison if convicted. The John Galt Corp., Alvo and DePaola's employer, was charged as an entity and could face a $10,000 fine and other sanctions.
Alvo and the Galt Corp. have opted for a bench trial, leaving their fates in the hands of presiding Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Rena Uviller. The others will be judged by a Manhattan jury that was selected last week.
Defense attorneys, who have deferred the blame to the city and other agencies in the past, will begin delivering their openings on Tuesday.
The trial is expected to last at least four months.