The death of two firemen in a blaze at the Deutsche Bank building was a "perfect storm of terrible circumstances" but not a crime, a defense lawyer said Tuesday as summations began in the manslaughter trial over the 2007 fire.
"The deaths of these two firefighters were terrible, were tragic and were heartbreaking," said defense attorney Edward Little. "But tragic accidents happen every day. Not every tragic accident has someone who committed a crime behind it."
Prosecutors in the 10-week-long Manhattan Supreme Court trial have charged that three demolition supervisors at the high-rise near Ground Zero cut a basement standpipe, depriving firefighters of emergency water when they went to battle a 17th-floor blaze.
Firemen Joseph Graffagnino, 33, and Robert Beddia, 52, died. Defendants Mitchel Alvo, 58, of Huntington Station; Salvatore DePaola, 56, of Staten Island; and Jeffrey Melofchik, 49, of Westfield, N.J. -- Little's client -- are charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
Little and Rick Pasacreta, DePaola's lawyer, both described their clients as scapegoats for government agencies -- including the FDNY and the city building department -- that failed to properly inspect the building for hazards.
"This was not a search for the truth," Pasacreta said. "It was a search for who to blame."
Little said the evidence at the trial -- testimony from 72 witnesses, including 30 firefighters, and 1,100 exhibits -- failed to prove that the defendants knew that a section of pipe removed from a welter of ceiling pipes in the basement of the building was part of the emergency water system.
If they did know, Little said, it could have been repaired cheaply.
"Any rational, sane person would have fixed it," he told jurors. "If he wouldn't have fixed it, he'd have an insanity defense."
The defense also contends that the lack of water did not cause the deaths. Instead, they say that a "negative air system" employing nearly 100 industrial fans to filter asbestos during demolition sucked black smoke down on ascending firefighters, turning stairwells into death traps.
Little told jurors that if their hoses had been working, firefighters would have charged up to the fire on the 17th floor, and even more would have been trapped by fire and smoke that had already dropped to lower floors.
"The water would have emboldened them," he said. "It would have been worse. More of them would have died."
Melofchik, the site safety manager, and DePaola, an asbestos removal supervisor, are having their case heard by the jury. Prosecutors will get their chance to sum up Wednesday.
Alvo, a demolition supervisor, and his employer, the John Galt Corp., are having their case heard by the judge, State Supreme Court Justice Rena K. Uviller. They will argue their case Monday.