A jury today cleared two Bronx tenants of causing the deaths of firefighter John Bellew, 37, and Lt. Curtis Meyran, 46, in the tragic 2005 Black Sunday inferno.
Heaving with emotion, Caridad Coste, 57, bowed her head in silence as the verdict was read. Beside her, Rafael Castillo sat motionless, listening to the jury's decision.
Behind them, the firefighters' widows and an army of colleagues sat shell-shocked.
Bellew's widow, Eileen, a mother of four who'd sat through six weeks of painful testimony at the trial, uttered sobs as the two were cleared on charges of manslaughter, negligent homicide and reckless endangerment. She tried to stifle her cries as family members attempted to comfort her.
Beside her, Meyran's widow, Jeanette, who has three children, tightly hugged her husband's FDNY jacket in disbelief.
There was an audible gasp from the courtroom, packed with an army of firefighters, including four badly hurt when they leaped from the building.
Coste and Castillo had been accused of using illegal partitions to chop their apartments into a deadly warren of rooms - stopping the heroes from seeing the blaze before it erupted into a fireball which cornered them in a room with no fire escape.
They were forced to leap from a fourth floor window.
The tenants could have faced up to 15 years behind bars had they been convicted. "Hallelujah! Hallelujah!" yelled Castillo's daughter, Albertina, 33, outside the Bronx courtroom.
But inside, the decision was met with disbelief.
"Oh my God!" uttered one firefighter. A second jury is expected to reach a verdict soon on similar charges against Cesar Rios, 52, the manager of the East 178th Street building, and its corporate owner, 234 East 178th Street LLC.
The nearly six week long trial in Bronx Supreme Court included dramatic tapes of the trapped fighters pleading for help as the intense heat battered them - including Meyran's frantic "Mayday" call issued seconds before he fell to his death.
Republished with permission from The New York Post