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Co. owner indicted in deadly NYC crane collapse

Liz De La Torre

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From The Associated Press

NEW YORK – A construction crane owner got a bargain-basement repair job on a giant rig, which fell apart and killed two workers when the fix failed, prosecutors said Monday in announcing manslaughter charges against the owner and a former mechanic.

The owner, James Lomma, and mechanic Tibor Varganyi hired a little-known Chinese company over the Internet to weld a critical component, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office said. Lomma and Varganyi didn’t follow rules intended to ensure the repair was solid — even after the company they hired warned that it wasn’t confident about the weld, prosecutors said.

The weld failed after a month of use, sending pieces of the 200-foot-tall crane crashing 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.

“This tragedy is particularly devastating because it could have been prevented,” District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said in announcing the charges against Lomma, Varganyi and Lomma’s companies, New York Crane & Equipment Corp. and J.F. Lomma Inc.

All pleaded not guilty. Lomma was given a week to pay $100,000 cash bail; he was released in the meantime. Varganyi was released without bail.

“What occurred here was an accident — a tragedy and not a crime,” Paul Shechtman, attorney for the companies, said outside court. Lomma, Varganyi and their lawyers declined to comment.

The accident, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, came a little more than two months after another crane — also owned by a Lomma company — collapsed elsewhere in Manhattan and killed seven people.

Together, the collapses stoked anxieties about construction safety in a city of skyscrapers.

Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri called the charges “an important reminder” of construction companies’ responsibilities. His agency stressed that it has increased training requirements for crane operators and inspectors and taken other safety steps since the collapses.

The slain workers’ families, who are suing Lomma and others over the collapse, welcomed the criminal case.

“This indictment is the first step toward learning the truth of how this 25-year-old crane with a questionable history of repairs was allowed to be used,” Kurtaj’s relatives said through their lawyer, Susan Karten.

The case centers on the crane’s turntable, which lets the upper parts of the rig swivel.

After workers spotted a crack in the turntable in May 2007, Lomma told Varganyi to arrange a replacement, prosecutors said. Two companies said the work would take at least seven months and $34,000, so the companies instead hired Chinese firm RTR Bearing, which said it could provide the part for about $20,000 in three months, according to prosecutors.

Vance said the company wanted a speedy fix to keep from losing about $50,000 a month in fees from renting out the rig.

An RTR representative warned Varganyi in an e-mail message that “we don’t have confidence on this welding.” But New York Crane kept RTR on the project and didn’t hire an engineer to oversee the repair or take other steps to ensure the quality of the work, prosecutors said.

Dalian, China-based RTR Bearing didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail Monday.

City building officials approved putting the crane back in service with the repaired turntable. Authorities say the owners misled inspectors about testing on the part.

Shechtman said Lomma’s companies had the part thoroughly inspected before using it and engaged in “no deceit whatsoever towards anyone.”

Lomma, 64, and Varganyi, 63, face up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

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Co. owner indicted in deadly NYC crane collapse