Jury hears 1993 WTC attack lawsuit
Suit alleges port authority ignored experts' terror warnings
From Phil Hirschkorn
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- After 12 years of legal delays, a jury this week began hearing arguments about whether the owners of the World Trade Center should be held liable for the 1993 terrorist attack on the fallen landmark.
Hundreds of affected businesses and survivors allege in the lawsuit that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the transportation agency that built and operated the trade center, failed to implement expert recommendations to end public access to an underground parking garage.
Families of the six killed, four of whom worked for the Port Authority, have settled claims. The agency has declined comment on the negligence lawsuit.
If the Port Authority is found liable, any damages would be determined in a second trial.
On Feb. 26, 1993, Islamic terrorists detonated 1,200 pounds of explosives in a rented truck. In addition to killing six people, the blast injured 1,000 others and left a 200-foot wide crater inside the garage.
Ramzi Yousef, the plot "mastermind" with al Qaeda ties, and five other men are serving life sentences for the attack.
"One of the tragedies of this case was it was so preventable," attorney David Dean, representing the 450 victims, told the jury in New York State Supreme Court on Monday.
Dean told the jury of four men and two women that "a garage where anybody would go" was a "terrorist's dream come true" and that the Port Authority was repeatedly advised to do something about it, beginning eight years before the attack.
His case relies on numerous Port Authority internal memos and outside studies commissioned by the agency to assess the vulnerability of the 110-story twin towers.
As early as 1984, the once confidential documents, revealed in court, described the 16-acre complex as a "prime target for domestic as well as international terrorists."
One memo said it was "obvious" such an attack was a "real possibility," and "the results could be catastrophic."
Another internal report called the parking garage, with its 400 spaces for public use, "highly susceptible to car bombings." The other 1,600 spaces were reserved for tenants.
The World Trade Center was the world's tallest office complex -- each of the 110-story twin towers was more than 1,360 feet tall -- and a symbol of the U.S. economy, when completed in 1973.
Dean said that truck bombings of the U.S. Marine barracks and Embassy in Lebanon in 1983 and 1984 prompted then-Port Authority Executive Director Peter Goldmark to re-evaluate security needs at the trade center.
Goldmark consulted with Scotland Yard, which had experience dealing with Irish terrorist bombings, and told colleagues the British police were "appalled" to hear about the public parking under the towers.
Under Goldmark's successor, Stephen Berger, the Port Authority rejected the recommendation to eliminate public parking, saying, "The inconvenience to tenants and substantial loss of revenue made this impractical," according to documents revealed in court.
The Port Authority also declined to station guards at the garage entrance or subject vehicles to random searches.
Berger is expected to testify.
Port Authority: 'This was the first time'
Defense attorney Marc Kasowitz called the case a blame game. "The plaintiffs in this case want you to blame the Port Authority for the murderous acts of fanatical terrorists who planned and schemed for years," Kasowitz said in his opening statement.
He rejected the notion that the Port Authority, which had 3,000 staffers occupying 20 floors of the twin towers, cut corners on safety to save money.
"The decision that the Port Authority was making about safety they were making for themselves," he argued.
He said that neither the FBI, CIA nor Secret Service, which had stations in the complex, had specific threat information. The attack was "unprecedented," he added.
"This was a wake-up call. This was the first time," Kasowitz said.
He noted that Manhattan's Rockefeller Center and Chicago's Sears Tower, which would surpass the twin towers as the tallest building in North America, also had underground public garages.
He said that the Port Authority did close the garage after intelligence reports indicated a possible threat during the 1986 centennial celebrations for the Statue of Liberty, and that experts found the more heavily traveled street-level plaza and shopping concourse more vulnerable.
Kasowitz argued that no amount of security improvements, including the closing of public access to the garage, would have prevented the 1993 attack. The September 11, 2001 attacks, which destroyed the twin towers and five other buildings was evidence of that, he argued.
Kasowitz said the persistent Yousef and his co-conspirators -- skilled forgers and creators of fake identities -- would have rented space in the trade center and occupied a tenant parking space, if necessary.
The trial is expected to last two months.
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