2 NYC tenants acquitted in firefighter deaths

NEW YORK (AP) -- Two tenants were acquitted Friday of creating a deadly maze of illegal walls in their apartment building, forcing two firefighters responding to a blaze to jump to their deaths.

Caridad Coste and Rafael Castillo had faced manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and other charges that could have resulted in up to 15 years in prison. A second jury continued deliberations later Friday on similar charges against the building's former and current owners.

The courtroom was packed with uniformed firefighters and the widows of the victims when the verdicts were read.

"New York City firefighters are disgusted that our safety has been so easily disregarded in this case," said Steve Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association. He called the acquittals "an absolute disgrace."

Six firefighters were trapped in the building on Jan. 23, 2005. Two of them, Lt. Curtis Meyran and firefighter John Bellew, died after jumping from a fourth-floor window. Two others who jumped survived.

After the verdicts were read, widow Eileen Bellew put her head in her hands and sobbed.

Jeanette Meyran, looking stoic and wearing her husband's firefighter jacket, said she didn't want to stay for the second jury because she anticipated another acquittal.

"It's unbelievable," she said. "You can't just do what you want because then you put people in harm's way. And for what? More money? There was no doubt that those walls led to his death."

Coste and Castillo were accused of illegally subdividing their apartments to make bedrooms for renters. Firefighters testified during the trial that the shoddy construction made the building a deathtrap.

With flames licking at their bodies and black smoke making it nearly impossible to see, four firefighters jumped from a fourth-floor window including Meyran, 46, and Bellew, 37.

The case highlighted the persistent fire hazard of using temporary walls for illegal apartment conversions - a common problem in a city where rents are high and space is always in demand.

Coste wept with joy after the verdict, and her attorney showed off thin ropes that he said would have saved the firefighters had they been distributed.

"I feel for them," she said of the firefighters' families. "Because they were defending us. But we aren't to blame for a lack of water or freezing temperatures that made getting water impossible, or that they didn't have ropes."

Castillo said of the firefighters: "They are heroes. And I know what happened was a tragedy. But it was not our fault. It is a shame."

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