A fire that claimed the lives of two firefighters burns...

A fire that claimed the lives of two firefighters burns in the former Deutsche Bank office building in New York. (August 18, 2007) Credit: AP

A Manhattan jury has acquitted a safety manager of homicide charges in the 2007 deaths of two firefighters during a blaze at the Deutsche Bank building near Ground Zero.

Afterward, some jurors said the men were scapegoats and that New York City and others appeared to be more responsible for the deaths.

The acquittal of Jeffrey Melofchik, 49, of Westfield, N.J., Wednesday, followed the one Tuesday for asbestos abatement supervisor Salvatore DePaola. The verdicts leave prosecutors empty-handed so far in a four-year quest to assign blame for the tragic fire at a building damaged in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"It's great. . . . It's a great relief," said a teary-eyed Melofchik. His wife, Audrey, walked into her husband's open arms after the verdict.

The jury in the four-week trial found Melofchik not guilty of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, the same charges DePaola, 56, of Staten Island, was cleared of.

Now, in two nonjury cases, Manhattan State Supreme Court Justice Rena Uviller is considering manslaughter charges against Mitchel Alvo, 58, of Huntington Station, who was in charge of asbestos abatement in the building, and his employer, the John Galt Corp. of the Bronx.

Prosecutors claimed all the defendants were responsible for cutting a basement standpipe in 2006, depriving firefighters of emergency water when they went to fight a blaze on the 17th floor months later. Firefighters Joseph Graffagnino, 33, and Robert Beddia, 53, died.

The criminal investigation into the fire began under former Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau. His successor, Cyrus Vance Jr., said he respected the jury's finding and "We hope that this prosecution brought necessary attention to the importance of safety in the construction and demolition industries."

But jury foreman Keith Spencer, 41, a UPS driver, said jurors established early on that DePaola and Melofchik "should have never been charged. There were more people involved that should have been charged -- the FDNY, the building inspectors, the LMDC ," said Spencer. "If everybody did their jobs this would not have happened -- it should not have happened."

Juror Lynette Cedeno, 50, an occupational therapist, said, "The wrong people were on trial. The message here is that the bigger organizations like the city, the buildings department and larger organizations need to take responsibility. You can't take it out on the smallest guys on the job and push them under the bus."

Cedeno faulted LMDC, which oversees construction at the trade center site and took over the bank building. An LMDC spokesman didn't return calls. An FDNY spokesman declined to comment.

John Meringolo, attorney for Graffignino's widow, Linda, in a civil suit against the city, said the verdict doesn't affect the families negligence lawsuit.

With Maria Alvarez

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