Crane owner goes on trial in deadly NYC collapse

February 21, 2012 - 7:26 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — A construction crane collapsed and killed two workers because its money-hungry owner skimped on a vital repair job, prosecutors said Tuesday as the owner went on trial in a manslaughter case that his lawyers said misconstrued an accident as a crime.

The only criminal trial stemming from the May 2008 collapse on Manhattan's Upper East Side opened in a courtroom packed with relatives of both owner Richard Lomma and the slain workers, who got a preview of a case rife with both technical and tragic details. One of the workers who died, Donald C. Leo, was a second-generation crane operator who was two weeks from getting married; the other, sewer company employee Ramadan Kurtaj, was pulled from the wreckage only to die a few hours later as doctors tried to save him.

The trial represents Manhattan prosecutors' second attempt to hold someone criminally responsible for two crane collapses that killed a total of seven people within two months in 2008, prompting scrutiny of crane safety here and in other American cities. A crane rigger was acquitted of manslaughter and all other charges in the earlier collapse.

In Lomma's case, prosecutors say the 200-foot-tall crane snapped because a weld failed in a crucial component he'd gotten repaired on the cheap.

The workers "were killed because of one man's greed," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eli Cherkasky said in his opening statement.

But Lomma's lawyers said he acted responsibly in getting the repair done and inspected. Defense experts have concluded the crane fell apart because it was pulled too high, and the broken weld was a consequence of the collapse, not the cause, the attorneys said.

"The government saw what they wanted to see and ignored everything else," defense lawyer James Kim told a judge in an opening statement. Lomma and his companies, New York Crane & Equipment Corp. and J. F. Lomma Inc., have chosen to have the judge, not a jury, render a verdict.

The crane was starting work on the 14th floor of what was to be a 32-story apartment building when the top portions of the rig snapped off, crashed into a building across the street and plummeted to the ground.

"We heard a godawful noise. ... I'd never heard anything that loud in my life," Kenneth G. Clark, who was working on the ground guiding the crane, testified Tuesday. Without enough time to run to safety, "I laid down and covered up and hoped for the best," he said.

After the debris fell — with the heavy "headache ball" that hangs from the tip of the crane landing about a foot from him — Clark ran toward the collapsed crane "to see whether there was anything I could do," he recalled. "And, unfortunately, there was nothing I could do. It was too late."

Leo, 30, was in the crane's cab and was almost decapitated when it fell, Cherkasky said. On the ground, 27-year-old Kurtaj was crushed in the rubble. A third construction worker, Simeon Alexis, was seriously injured.

Lining rows in the crowded courtroom, some of the victims' relatives wept as Cherkasky described the men's injuries and Lomma's actions.

"I hope that the law takes him into the right hands, where he belongs," Kurtaj's father, Uke Kurtaj of Peja, Kosovo, said outside court through an Albanian-language translator.

Prosecutors say the culprit in the collapse was a bad weld in the crane's turntable, a critical component that lets the upper parts of the rig swivel.

Lomma and mechanic Tibor Varganyi got estimates from known manufacturers but instead arranged for a bargain-basement replacement, prosecutors say. The two hired an obscure Chinese company over the Internet to do the work and failed to take steps to ensure the repair was sound — even after a company representative warned in an email that "we don't have confidence on this welding," prosecutors said. The representative later said the company "can do this."

After a month of use, the weld failed, investigators found.

Varganyi, 65, has pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide. He's set for sentencing in April and could be spared jail time if he testifies, as expected, against Lomma, 66.

Lomma's lawyers said he arranged to have the weld tested. City building officials inspected the replacement part and approved putting the crane in service, and Lomma had no reason to cut corners to save money because insurance was covering the cost of the replacement part, they said.

But the repair wasn't the key factor in the collapse, the defense says in court documents. An engineering expert is prepared to testify that "the failure of the (Chinese company's) weld was one of several results caused by the improper operation of the crane," defense lawyers Paul Shechtman and Andrew M. Lankler wrote in an Oct. 19 court filing.

The weld was adequate to handle the expected load, the lawyers wrote in a related document. But their engineering expert concluded the crane's arm was lifted at too high an angle just before the collapse, despite safety devices supposed to limit how high it can go, the lawyers said in the Oct. 19 filing.

"It appears that the aids and devices were disengaged, overridden or ignored," they wrote.

Their expert determined "operator error" caused a problem known as "two-blocking" — essentially, the ball-and-hook assembly being pulled tightly into the top of the crane and destabilizing it, the lawyers wrote.

The dead workers' families, who are suing Lomma and others, have bristled at the suggestion that their loved ones played a role in the collapse. Bernadette Panzella, a lawyer for Leo's family, has called the notion that workers shut off safety systems a "preposterous conspiracy theory."

If convicted, Lomma could face up to 15 years in prison.

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