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Not Everyone to Blame For Deutsche Bank Fire is on Trial

By Murray Weiss | March 23, 2011 11:53am
A 2007 photo memorial to fallen firefighters Robert Beddia (left photo) and Joseph Graffagnino (right photo).
A 2007 photo memorial to fallen firefighters Robert Beddia (left photo) and Joseph Graffagnino (right photo).
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Associated Press

By Murray Weiss

DNAinfo Contributing Columnist

The father of a firefighter who died in the Deutsche Bank building fire refuses to attend the trial of three men accused in the deaths of his son, Joseph Gaffagnino Jr., and his son's colleague, Robert Beddia.

The elder Gaffagnino is angry that there are not more people answering criminally for what occurred in 2007 at the doomed skyscraper that was damaged by the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Who can blame him?

There are un-indicted co-conspirators behind this wholly avoidable tragedy. They work at major construction companies and various city agencies. They walked away free thanks to inadequate legislation.

The laws are so weak that even if the prosecutors were able to indict — and convict — a company and its officials on felony manslaughter charges, the penalty for the corporation would be: a $10,000 fine and conditional discharge. Pocket change for the company and no prison time for anyone. This is insanity.

Ironically, if the laws made sense, one half dozen officials from Gaffagnino and Beddia’s own Fire Department would likely be sitting alongside defendants.

To say the FDNY had opportunities to prevent this horror is a great understatement.

They had every opportunity to inspect the building. In fact, under their own guidelines, they were required to do so every 15 days. But their dirty little secret was they never bothered.

Even after a huge pipe literally fell off the Deutcsche Bank building and landed on the roof of Ladder Company 10 next door, the fire commissioner and chiefs who responded to Ladder 10 never demanded that the Deutsche Bank building be checked out.

And there were a thousand other reasons for the FDNY to inspect that building. Their own programs that deal with troublesome hazardous buildings should have drawn them to the dire circumstances at the structure.

The building was loaded with asbestos, plastics, and polyurethane, the water pipes had negative pressure systems that did meet standards for pumping water and anyone mildly concerned about safety of those working there and any firemen who had to respond should have done something.

The community board was howling about the building. Everyone knew what was going on there. But at one meeting weeks before the tragedy, a FDNY chief unwittingly summed up his agency’s attitude.

"It is not like a nuclear bomb is going to go off at the building," he said.

It may not have been a bomb, but it was pretty close to it. And considering how close the Deutsche Bank building was to Ground Zero, where the FDNY lost more than 300 of their Bravest members, you would think they would have been more aggressive about safety there.

Instead, firefighters Gaffagnino and Beddio became two more causalities of 9/11. They became trapped by smoke while trying to fight a fire with barely a drop of water at their disposal.

And the Building Department’s performance was just as negligent. Only they can at least say they were on site doing something, even if it was completely incompetent.

And what of the other officials at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which put all the pressure the workers to take down the structure and never cared about how the job was being done? And at Bovis, the giant company that held the contract? And at John Galt, a company cobbled together to take on a daunting job that other companies avoided like the plague.

Those officials were lucky.

They skillfully insulated themselves with layers of management making it impossible to lay blame directly at anyone’s door.

Prosecutors studied the laws trying to find a way to affix criminal blame where they could. At first it appeared the law gave them sway over the government agencies. But for any agency to be charged, the city would have to waive what is known as “sovereign immunity.”

That will never happen. It would be the equivalent of Muammar Gadaffi agreeing to be arrested on charges that he abused the people Libya.

Instead we wind up with Jeffrey Melofchik, a site manager, Salvatore DePaola, a subcontractor laborer and Mitchell Alvo, a Galt company official, charged in the case.

None of these men look like an ax murderers or cold hearted killers. Yet Alvo is accused of actually ordering the building’s standpipe cut and tossed aside like garbage. It only needed to be cleaned of asbestos or other contaminates. Instead the building was left without a lifeline to carry water.

Their attorneys, however, will certainly claim the tragedy is the fault of the Fire Department, the Buildings Department and everyone else – and not their clients. It is a defense that may prevail.

So Mr. Gaffagnino can find no comfort in a system that failed his son, and him.

And if something does not change, that system is destined to fail this city and its firefighters again.