Trial opens in fatal Azure crane crash case

TRD New York /
Feb.February 21, 2012 11:27 PM

The owner of the crane that crashed at the Azure condo in 2008, killing two people, is a cold-hearted businessman more concerned with collecting $50,000 a month in equipment fees than protecting workers, prosecutors said today at the start of his trial.

“They were killed because one man valued his profit over the safety of others,” said Eli Cherkasky, an assistant district attorney, in a packed room inside of Supreme Court in Lower Manhattan.

The crane owner, James Lomma, faces six criminal counts in the case, including two counts of manslaughter, for the deaths of Donald Leo, the crane’s operator, and Ramadan Kurtaj, who was working on the ground.

Prosecutors say Lomma leased a crane to construction crews that was severely weakened because he had improperly fixed it, on the fly, so as not to lose out on lucrative work during the height of the housing boom. In October, Tibor Varganyi, a co-worker of Lomma at the New York Crane and Equipment Company, pleaded guilty to murder.

But defense attorneys argue that it’s not clear at all that the crane collapsed from that one single weld, which means that Lomma shouldn’t be held accountable for ordering the weld from China. Plus, much of the evidence in the case — metal crane parts — were mishandled by investigators, who ultimately threw them in a Dumpster where they rusted.

“This case is about a rush to judgment,” said James Kim, Lomma’s attorney, in his opening statement before Judge Daniel Convisier. His client, Lomma, who was wearing a charcoal suit, mostly stared straight ahead without seeming to register much emotion.

Much of the day’s proceedings involved diagrams and photos presented on screens, to help make sense of how cranes are designed and what happened on the morning of May 30, 2008, when the crane crashed to the ground on the corner of First Avenue and 91st Street, at the Azure.

Prosecutors also presented an email sent by an employee of RTR Bearing, the Chinese company, to Lomma’s firm that seemed to indicate it could not fix the crane as required. “And honestly speaking, we don’t have the confidence in this welding,” said the email, which was dated July 6, 2007.

But the defense lawyers countered that their initial reservation disappeared after a few back and forths about how it could be done properly. Indeed, an email from July 9 was shown suggesting that RTR had figured out a way to move forward. “We can do this,” it reads.

A dramatic moment was provided by testimony from prosecution witness Kenneth Clark, who was working as a laborer at the site that morning and avoided getting hit by falling crane parts by a few feet.

After hearing a “god-awful noise,” he dove to the ground to protect himself, he said.

“I had no idea which way it was going,” Clark said. “You don’t know where things are going to land.”

Among the many people who filled the courtroom were Fitore Kurtaj, a sister of Ramadan, and Uke Kurtaj, his father, who came from their native Albania for the trial. Kurtaj dabbed his eyes with a plaid handkerchief as he railed against Lomma in the hall outside.

“If you knew ahead of time that the crane could have collapsed, it was as if you went in there and killed him yourself,” Kurtaj said to a group of reporters through a translator. The trial continues tomorrow.

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