No jail for mechanic in deadly NYC crane collapse

August 7, 2012 - 2:35 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — The only person to admit to a crime in either of two deadly 2008 construction crane collapses was spared jail Tuesday, under a plea deal two slain men's relatives scorned as an injustice.

Mechanic Tibor Varganyi — who pleaded guilty and then saw his boss go to trial and end up cleared — was sentenced to a year of community service for his role in a May 2008 crane collapse that killed two workers. Prosecutors had agreed to the sentence to get Varganyi's help making the case against his employer.

After sitting expressionlessly as the workers' families called him a careless killer in statements that spanned more than 40 minutes, Varganyi turned toward them to apologize.

"I'm so sorry for the loss of your loved ones," he said. "... I did not mean to hurt anyone."

But that was no comfort to the relatives, still outraged at the April acquittal of Varganyi's boss, crane owner James Lomma. They urged a court to depart from the plea arrangement and jail Varganyi.

Lomma's trial "delivered absolutely no justice for my son," slain crane operator Donald C. Leo's mother, Maria, told a judge. "... Give me something to believe, again, in the justice of this court."

Varganyi arranged what authorities called a penny-pinching, shoddy repair to a crucial component of a 200-foot-tall crane. It snapped apart on Manhattan's Upper East Side in May 2008, a month after the fix.

Sewer company worker Ramadan Kurtaj, 27, was working on the ground below the crane; he was pulled from the wreckage and died at a hospital. Leo, 30, died after nearly being decapitated. He was due to be married about three weeks later.

"To get condolence cards and last-minute wedding RSVP's in the mail on the same day was surreal," his fiancée, Janine Belcastro, told the court in a statement his mother read.

Kurtaj — whom his family called "Dani" — was from Peja, Kosovo. His cousin, Xhevahire Sinanaj, told the judge she wished she could "call home and say justice was served."

The men died two months after another crane toppled onto a block near the United Nations headquarters, killing six workers and a Florida tourist. The collapses fueled new safety measures in New York and some other cities, as well as numerous lawsuits. But criminal trials in both accidents ended in acquittals, making Varganyi's guilty plea the only successful prosecution in either accident.

Varganyi, 65, and Lomma, 66, were charged with manslaughter in the May 2008 collapse. Varganyi pleaded guilty to the lower charge of criminally negligent homicide. The deal allowed him to avoid jail time if he testified against Lomma.

At Lomma's trial this spring, Varganyi said he was told the crane owner wanted to save time and money on the repair. After getting estimates from known manufacturers, Varganyi scouted out and Lomma took a cheaper bid from a little-known Chinese company, even after the firm expressed misgivings about handling the job, according to prosecutors and testimony.

Lomma didn't follow city inspectors' requirements for the repair, and it ultimately was too weak to handle the crane's work, prosecutors said.

Lomma's lawyers said he had gotten the repair done and tested responsibly, and that other factors caused the collapse. They and their engineering experts said the repair was strong enough for its workload.

Manhattan State Supreme Court Justice Daniel P. Conviser acquitted Lomma of all charges.

The judge who handled Varganyi's case, Justice Thomas Farber, said he understood the Leo and Kurtaj families' frustrations but would honor the promise made to Varganyi.

"It's the way our system works," Farber said.

In the earlier crane collapse, in March 2008, a crane rigger was charged with manslaughter. He was acquitted of all counts.

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