A jury in Manhattan Tuesday acquitted a low-level asbestos abatement supervisor of homicide in the 2007 deaths of two firefighters in a controversial blaze at the Deutsche Bank building near Ground Zero.
Although charges against three other defendants are still outstanding, the verdict represented a setback for prosecutors' efforts to assign criminal blame for the tragedy during demolition of a building severely damaged in the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed hundreds of others from the FDNY.
Salvatore DePaola, 56, of Staten Island, was charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide for heading a crew that cut a basement standpipe in 2006, depriving firefighters of emergency water when a fire broke out months later.
But DePaola and his co-defendants said they didn't know the pipe was a standpipe, and after the verdict DePaola blamed prosecutors for pursuing blue-collar workers but not charging FDNY brass and corporate bosses for allowing hazardous conditions at the site.
"It's a happy day and a sad day," said a teary DePaola, the father of a fireman, after hugging a juror who was leaving Manhattan Supreme Court. "We've still got two firefighters dead, and the DA put the wrong people on the stand."
The jury is still considering identical charges against site safety manager Jeffrey Melofchik, 49, of Westfield, N.J., who worked for general contractor Bovis Lend Lease. It will resume deliberations Wednesday.
Charges against a third man, Mitchel Alvo, 58, of Huntington Station, who was in charge of the building's asbestos abatement, and his employer, the John Galt Corp. of the Bronx, also remain unresolved. Their cases are still being decided by Judge Rena Uviller.
The fatal fire, which killed firemen Joseph Graffagnino, 33, and Robert Beddia, 53, occurred on the 17th floor during a project to simultaneously remove asbestos and toxic World Trade Center dust, and tear the building down, floor by floor, from the top.
During the 10-week trial, prosecutors claimed defendants cut corners on the abatement to increase profits, and argued that the standpipe had a distinctive appearance that they should have recognized.
DePaola, who did not testify, sharply disputed that claim after his acquittal. "Anything red we weren't supposed to cut," DePaola said. "But this was black like 5,000 other pipes in the basement."
Indicted just three days before Christmas in 2008, he said he planned to spend time with his children and grandchildren. He said he was relieved but never confident until the verdict was read. "You always have doubts," he said. "Innocent people do go away, and that's the toughest thing."