NEW YORK – A rigger who worked on a massive construction crane that collapsed and killed seven people has been stripped of his licenses after an administrative judge said his sloppy work was to blame for the collapse, despite his acquittal on all criminal charges last year, the city Buildings Department said Wednesday.
The license revocation bars William Rapetti from running any cranes or overseeing their assembly in the city, and the judge's finding that he was responsible for the catastrophe could come into play in the cluster of lawsuits surrounding the collapse.
"We have determined that Mr. Rapetti took shortcuts while erecting the tower crane by using damaged equipment and failing to follow the manufacturer's specific instructions," Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri said in a statement Thursday. "Those shortcuts sacrificed the safety of the job site and led to horrific consequences."
Rapetti lawyer Marianne Bertuna said the rigger was very disappointed in the decision and considering fighting it in court to try to get back to the work he's done since he was 17.
"We stand by our position that Mr. Rapetti has always been one of the safest riggers in New York City," she said. "It was more than a livelihood for him."
The crane toppled onto a residential neighborhood in midtown Manhattan in March 2008, killing six construction workers and a tourist, hurting two dozen others, demolishing a four-story town house and damaging other buildings as pieces of the rig flew as far as a block away. Coupled with a second Manhattan crane collapse that killed two people two months later, the disaster raised questions about crane safety around the country, spurring new inspections and other measures from New York to Chicago to Dallas.
Building officials, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and prosecutors have long attributed the March 2008 collapse to the failure of four heavy-duty nylon straps that Rapetti and his crew were using temporarily to fasten an 11,200-pound steel collar around the crane. The straps are known as slings.
Rapetti used half as many straps as the manufacturer called for, didn't pad them to keep them from fraying against the crane's metal edges and used a visibly worn sling that ultimately broke, overloading the remaining straps, the officials said. When the straps gave way, the collar plummeted down the nearly 200-foot-tall crane, destabilizing the rig by snapping metal beams that tethered it to the building under construction, they said.
In both the criminal trial and a seven-day administrative hearing this past December, Rapetti's lawyers argued that he had followed crane industry norms and that the straps weren't the reason for the collapse. His attorneys pointed to other factors, including the crane's design, which didn't anchor it to the ground in the usual way, and bad welding in the tethering beams.
A state Supreme Court judge cleared Rapetti of manslaughter and other charges last July. His was the only criminal trial stemming from that collapse.
But in the administrative proceeding, city Administrative Law Judge John B. Spooner found Rapetti was negligent and violated several city building laws.
"It is clear that the various improprieties and shortcuts involved in (Rapetti's) rigging of the crane, as established by the evidence, constituted violations of law or rules," Spooner wrote in a July 6 ruling. "Such failure was the primary cause of the collapse."
Rapetti's license had been suspended since 2009; his lawyer said the suspension was with his consent. The judge recommended revoking Rapetti's license. The decision ultimately was LiMandri's.
It "underscores that the city will not tolerate professional licensees who cut corners, use shoddy equipment, and ignore construction and crane regulations," city Department of Investigation Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn said in a statement Thursday. Her agency also investigated.
A lawyer who represented the widow of one of one of the workers killed in the collapse praised the city's decision and the administrative judge's reasoning.
"It really deals well with the entire issue of (Rapetti's) negligence, as opposed to criminality. ...Taking away his license is certainly an appropriate remedy," lawyer Howard S. Hershenhorn said. He represented Denise Bleidner, whose husband, Wayne Bleidner, was operating the crane when it fell; she settled a lawsuit against Rapetti's company and others in March on terms her lawyer wouldn't disclose.
Almost a year to the day after his acquittal, Rapetti, a married father of three, has been making ends meet by doing some construction jobs that don't require licenses, his lawyer said. He didn't have the resources to hire the experts he'd had in his criminal trial for the license hearing, she said.
She said he has been grappling, too, with emotional fallout from the collapse, which killed men he had counted among his closest friends.
"Once he was acquitted, it was really the first time, in his mind, that he felt ready to go back to work," Bertuna said. "He had so much heaviness on him."
New York's two 2008 crane collapses led to the resignation of LiMandri's predecessor and a host of new crane safety measures, ranging from hiring more inspectors to banning the use of nylon straps unless a crane manufacturer recommends them.
In the aftermath of the collapses, former chief city crane inspector James Delayo admitted taking more than $10,000 in payoffs to fake inspection and crane operator licensing exam results; the charges weren't directly tied to the fallen cranes. Another crane inspector, Edward Marquette, was charged with pretending to have inspected cranes when he hadn't — including a check of the one that collapsed days later in March 2008. Marquette has pleaded not guilty.
Rapetti's lawyer made note of both cases during the hearing on his license, according to Spooner's ruling. But the administrative judge said inspection issues weren't a factor in the collapse.
Jennifer Peltz can be reached at http://twitter.com/jennpeltz
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