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Roofer sentenced in fatal accident

Maybe high on the roof, so close to the sky, roofers such as James McCullagh feel invincible, towering over the world, towering over their fate.

Maybe high on the roof, so close to the sky, roofers such as James McCullagh feel invincible, towering over the world, towering over their fate.

McCullagh, 60, said as much in federal court Tuesday, before he was sentenced to prison in connection with a roofing accident that killed his good friend Mark T. Smith, 52, on June 21, 2013.

"It is a dangerous trade," McCullagh told U.S. District Judge Nitza I. Quinones Alejandro in a courtroom filled with about 50 spectators, the majority of them McCullagh's friends and many cousins.

"The men in the roofing industry - we take it for granted that our skill is all that's needed," he said.

But skill wasn't what was needed when the scaffolding gave way near the top of a steep roof under repair at Old Zion Lutheran Church in Philadelphia.

What was needed was fall protection, a safety harness - and Smith wasn't wearing one, so he fell more than 45 feet to the pavement below.

And although McCullagh violated federal worker safety laws for not providing the equipment, that's not why Quinones Alejandro sentenced him to 10 months in prison.

Violating those laws amount to misdemeanors.

Lying to federal inspectors, however, is a felony, as is asking employees to do the same - and in December, McCullagh, of Meadowbrook, pleaded guilty to both.

The judge sentenced McCullagh to 10 months in prison and two years of probation, for four counts of making false statements, a count of obstruction of justice, and a count of willfully violating an Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) regulation.

McCullagh apologized to Smith's family.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Kay Costello asked the judge to give McCullagh the toughest sentence - 16 months - because he had a long-standing practice of not providing safety equipment to his workers.

"This case presents an opportunity to save lives," she said, sending a strong message to employers that disobeying safety rules and lying to inspectors will be punished.

McCullagh's lawyer, Michael McDermott, and the supporters who spoke described McCullagh as a good man who fell apart after his son died from a drug overdose in 2007.

They recommended that he be given probation so he could work with OSHA, conveying the hard lessons he learned to others.

Describing her task as a "very emotional and difficult decision," the judge said she had to weigh deterrence against the support McCullagh received from so many, including former Police Commissioner John Timoney, who wrote a letter.

Remembering the day Smith was killed, the judge told McCullagh, "will be the worst part of the punishment."

When the scaffolding gave way, Smith first fell 15 feet to a lower roof and then 30 feet more to the ground. As he lay there, bleeding and struggling for breath, workers from a nearby restaurant tried to comfort him until the ambulances came.

While Smith was dying at the hospital, McCullagh asked his workers to tell OSHA inspectors that they had safety harnesses but that Smith wasn't wearing his. McCullagh told the inspectors the same thing. The employees lied as instructed, but later changed their minds and called OSHA.

"I don't know why," McCullagh said, talking about his lies to the inspectors.

"Fear, shock, stupidity."

Smith's wife, Denise, addressed the judge, and McCullagh.

"Jimmy, you've broken my heart forever," she said. "I never got to say goodbye. That was the day my nightmares began.

"Jimmy, you were his friend," she said, as McCullagh hunched deeply into his shoulders.

"How can you live with the guilt?"