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Second Deutsche Bank Foreman Not Guilty in Deadly Blaze

By DNAinfo Staff on June 29, 2011 11:56am  | Updated on June 29, 2011 2:47pm

By Shayna Jacobs

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

MANHATTAN — A second construction manager was found not guilty in the deaths of two firefighters killed at the former Deutsche Bank building, one day after the same jury acquitted another worker.

Supervisor Jeffrey Melofchik, 49, was found not guilty of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment charges after a nearly three month trial in Manhattan Supreme Court.

Melofchik, who worked for the general contractor as a safety manager, was accused of allowing workers to break an emergency water pipe — or standpipe — that ran throughout the building which was then a demolition job.

Bovis Lend Lease was tasked with slowly demolishing what remained of the toxic Ground Zero skyscraper that was heavily damaged by a falling tower on 9/11.

After the verdict, an elated Melofchik — flanked by his lawyers and family — said he was grateful for the outcome but noted the firemen's deaths were an unforgettable tragedy.  

"Ill always have them in my thoughts and my prayers for the rest of my life," Melofchik said. "I feel bad for their families."

Firefighters Joseph Graffagnino, 33, and Robert Beddia, 53, died of smoke inhalation when they had no water to combat a massive blaze on Aug. 18, 2007 at 130 Liberty Street.

Prosecutors said a 42-foot missing piece of the standpipe in the basement of the building, which had been cut during the asbestos abatement process months prior to the fire, directly caused the absence of water and the fatalities.

Graffagnino's father Joseph Graffagnino Sr. had boycotted the trial from the start, saying the DA had charged the wrong defendants all along.

"Guilty or innocent verdict, the effect on the families is nothing. We don't have any feelings one way or the other," Graffagnino said.

"The people that should have been charged in this fire...were not charged with anything," he said. "It's very upsetting the way the case was handled."

Graffagnino said he was waiting to the conclusion of the criminal case so he could bring his civil suit against those responsible for the site: Bovis Lend Lease, the city's Buildings Department, the FDNY, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

"It's a shame that the people who should have been put on trial never will be put on trial. We find it extremely offensive," he said.

Other 9/11 victims families agreed with Graffagnino, saying the city scapegoated the wrong people.

Retired FDNY Chief Jim Riches, whose firefighter son Jim Riches Jr. was killed on 9/11, said he thought the prosecutors charged the wrong guys.

"If they [DA's office] weren't going to indict the people at the top, they shouldn't have bothered," Riches said.

The defendants were "just being held as scapegoats," Riches said. "I'm not sure they intentionally tried to hurt anybody. They might have been negligent, but I think [the blame] should go more toward the top."

Riches added that he was "sorry for the families — they're not going to get any justice... There's not going to be any closure for the families. Joey and Bobby are gone."

Sally Regenhard, who founded the the Skyscraper Safety Campaign and has been a critic of the LMDC's management of the Deutsche Bank building, agreed that the city, LMDC and Bovis should have been held responsible, not those charged.

"This echoes 9/11. People were killed, and there was gross negligence, there was gross mismanagement, there was culpability, and yet everyone gets away with murder," said Regenhard, whose firefighter son died on 9/11, "It's very, very disheartening."

Lawyers for the workers said their cleints were the fall guys, adding that dozens of governement and FDNY inspectors were respoinsible for matinaing such fire safety functions.

The department was supposed to have checked for a working standpipe in the building every 15 days but had only made one check, they argued.

Construction foreman Salvatore DePaola was found not guilty in the case on Tuesday.

"Prosecutors have been taught a lesson about scapegoating people," Melofchik's attorney Edward Little told reporters.

"Thank God for juries. It's been hell for Jeff," he added.

Jurors, who shared their thoughts on the case outside the courthouse, said they decided there was not enough evidence to convict either of the workers.

Some said it was clear from the beginning that the wrong men were on trial and that the dozens of inspectors and city agencies responsible for overlooking the broken standpipe and other egregious fire hazards on the site were to blame for the tragedy.

"These people were set jup to fail from the get go," Juror Lynette Cedeno, an occupational therapist from the Lower East Side, said, explaining the project was underfunded the by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

"From the very begining it was very apparent they should not have been on trial," said juror Rosemary Cardillo, a retired real estate broker, from Midtown East.

"We respect the jury's verdict," Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. said in a staement.

"We hope that this prosecution brought necessary attention to the importance of safety in the construction and demolition industries," the DA added. 

There is still no verdict on the third individual charged int his case, Mitchel Alvo, who was DePaola's immediate boss and the director of abatement on site. He had opted for a bench trial and his fate will be decided by Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Rena Uviller at a later date.