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Ground zero's ghost next door is focus of trial

From the instant the World Trade Center's south tower crumbled into it, the somber bank building next door began to extract a toll that no one imagined.

Contaminated by toxic debris from the terrorist attack here Sept. 11, 2001, the former Deutsche Bank building took hundreds of millions of dollars and more than nine years to dismantle. And it claimed the lives of two firefighters who died in a blaze that exposed a litany of failures by a company and government agencies involved in what was supposed to be one of the most scrutinized projects in the city.

After a costly, lengthy investigation that at one point directly pointed at the city, Manhattan prosecutors charged a construction company foreman and two supervisors with manslaughter in the 2007 blaze. Jury selection in their trial is expected to start today.

The attack on the twin towers on 9/1 1 carved a 15-story slash in the 41-floor bank building, coated it with toxins and left tragic traces. While no one in the bank building died, more than 700 body parts from victims of the attack were eventually found there.

After disputes over what to do with the building and who should pay, Lower Manhattan Development Corp. -- a young city-state agency created to help coordinate rebuilding -- agreed in 2005 to buy the building, clean it and take it down.

It would take more time and money than expected; the development corporation spent about $300 million after insurers paid hundreds of millions of dollars to Deutsche Bank.

The process was beset by minor fires and sometimes harrowing accidents -- including a pipe plummeting through a neighboring firehouse's roof and hurting two firefighters -- before a worker's discarded cigarette sparked an Aug. 18, 2007, blaze that roared through nine floors. Firefighters encountered a thicket of hazards, including blocked stairwells and an air system that was meant to keep toxins in but ended up concentrating smoke. And a basement break in a standpipe kept them from getting water to the burning floors for about an hour, authorities said.

Trapped in thick smoke, Robert Beddia, 53, and Joseph P. Graffagnino, 33, died on the building's 14th floor.

Investigators would find that the Fire Department, which was supposed to inspect the building every 15 days, had not done so in more than a year. Building, environmental and labor inspectors didn't realize that stairwell barriers meant to contain toxins hadn't been built to let firefighters get through.

Then-Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau put it bluntly: "Everybody who could have screwed up, screwed up here."

Officials spent months in a probe that once aimed to charge city agencies. But the only ones criminally charged were site safety manager Jeffrey Melofchik, 49, who worked for city and general contractor Bovis Lend Lease; Mitchel Alvo, 58, cleanup director for subcontractor John Galt Corp.; Salvatore DePaola, 56, a Galt foreman; and Galt itself.

After the standpipe broke, Alvo and DePaola had a 42-foot-long section of the pipe cut up and taken away, and Melofchik filled out checklists saying the tower's fire-suppression equipment was working fine, prosecutors say. All three "acted in a morally blameworthy and egregious manner," Assistant District Attorney Noah D. Genel said at a hearing in July.

Defense lawyers have said the men didn't recognize the pipe's function, inspectors didn't flag the break, and the men are being singled out for a fire fueled by a welter of hazards and failures in oversight.

Prosecutors are "scapegoating a few defenseless people at the bottom of the line" because "they didn't have the nerve" to indict government agencies or were unable to, Melofchik's lawyer, Edward J.M. Little, said at the July hearing.

Morgenthau said that it would have been fruitless to try to prosecute the city because of a legal doctrine that generally makes governments immune from criminal prosecution, though individual officials and employees sometimes are charged with crimes.

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