Crane Owner Faces Criminal Trial in Deadly New York City Collapse

By JENNIFER PELTZ | February 22, 2012

A construction crane owner whose rig collapsed and killed two workers is facing the only criminal trial stemming from the disaster, with prosecutors saying he pinched pennies on a crucial repair while he suggests workers’ mistakes caused the collapse.

Opening arguments were set for Tuesday in James Lomma’s manslaughter trial in the May 2008 disaster on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It happened two months after another Manhattan crane collapse killed seven people, and the incidents together prompted scrutiny of crane safety here and in other American cities.

For the Manhattan district attorney’s office, Lomma’s trial is a second attempt to hold someone criminally responsible for the two crane collapses, which stoked anxieties about construction oversight in a city that had been in a building boom. A crane rigger was acquitted of manslaughter and all other charges in the earlier collapse.

The May 2008 collapse “is particularly devastating because it could have been prevented,” DA Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said in a statement when the indictment was unveiled in March 2010.

For Lomma and his companies, mainly New York Crane & Equipment Corp., the trial represents a chance to try to clear himself with a two-part defense outlined in court documents – that he acted responsibly in getting the repair done, and that the crane fell apart because it was pulled up too high, not because the repaired part failed.

“New York Crane is looking forward to a trial at which it will be shown that what occurred was a tragic accident, and not a crime,” the companies’ lawyer, Paul Shechtman, said Friday.

Pieces of the 200-foot-tall crane crashed onto an apartment building in May 2008. Crane operator Donald C. Leo, 30, and fellow worker Ramadan Kurtaj, 27, were killed; a third construction worker, Simeon Alexis, was seriously hurt.

Prosecutors say the culprit 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 arranged for a cheap welding job to repair a critical component of a 200-foot-tall crane, prosecutors say. The two hired a little-known Chinese company over the Internet to do the work and failed to take steps to ensure the repair was sound – even after a representative of the firm they hired warned in an email that “we don’t have confidence on this welding,” prosecutors said. The representative later said the company “could 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 against Lomma, 66.

But Lomma’s lawyers have said have said New York Crane arranged to have the weld tested. City building officials inspected the repaired 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 fix, 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,” Shechtman and Lomma lawyer 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 slain workers’ families, who are suing Lomma and others, have bristled at the suggestion that workers played a role in the collapse. Bernadette Panzella, a lawyer for Leo’s family, called the notion that workers shut off safety systems a “preposterous conspiracy theory.”

Lomma “cannot impugn the integrity of the entire construction workforce and expect that the public and the judiciary will accept his lies,” she said in a statement in December.

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

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