SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — Two weeks after a March 2015 fire destroyed two high-rise apartment buildings on Jay Street, officials ruled it an accident: caused by a cigarette left smoldering on an upholstered chair. The ensuing blaze killed four people and left 60 more homeless.
Two years later, at a Thursday morning news conference, District Attorney Robert Carney said the circumstances that led to the fire were not accidental — they were negligent, and therefore criminal.
Jay Sacks, 39 of Scotia, and Kenneth Tyree, 53 of Schenectady, were both charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide Thursday morning. Both were arraigned in Schenectady County Court. Sacks pleaded not guilty; Tyree's arraignment was continued until Friday so he could find an attorney. Both are being held in the county jail.
Sacks was the building manager at 104 Jay Street, where the fire started; he is accused of mismanaging the building and allowing critical systems to fall into disrepair. Tyree, a building and codes inspector for the city, inspected 104 Jay Street before the fire. Records show that Tyree marked the alarm and sprinkler systems as operational; Carney says they clearly were not.
"The conditions of the building ... fed the rapid spread of the fire, and deprived the tenants of early warning," Carney said on Thursday.
Those conditions, according to the felony indictment, included a fire alarm system that had been in disrepair for at least a month before the fire. Carney explained Thursday that the fire panel in 104 Jay Street was inoperative, which meant that smoke alarms and hand-pull alarms on each floor did not work.
"This fire happened at 2 a.m. People were sleeping in that building," he said. "People were likely sleeping on the sixth floor, where the fire spread."
Carney did not offer any motive that might have led to Tyree falsifying the code enforcement forms, though he acknowledged that marking 104 Jay Street in violation "probably" would have created more work for Tyree.
"He should have ordered either an evacuation of that building," Carney said, "or the establishment of a fire watch, which means constant monitoring until the alarm system is repaired."
The flames ultimately destroyed 104 Jay Street and the neighboring 100-102 Jay Street, killing four people inside.
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy, who oversees all departments including code enforcement, called Thursday's relevations "extremely disappoiting."
"Clearly, it was a case of poor judgment by some people," McCarthy said. "We are looking at the mechanics of our civil service application, and how the applicants claims on those documents are verified."
Tyree is charged for allegedly making certain false statements on his civil service application, which the district attorney says could have changed Tyree's employment situation or even disallowed his hiring by the city.
Outside court, Tyree's fiancée spoke with Time Warner Cable News and said she was shocked by Tyree's arrest.
"Something's not right," she said, identifying herself only as Ms. Fox. "Kenny is not the type of person who would put other people's lives in jeopardy like that."
Ms. Fox said that Tyree has a prior service record in the military, where she says he learned to take human life and his role protecting it, very seriously.
"If he was guilty, he'd have given me some kind of indication," Ms. Fox said. "He never did that."
During Thursday's news conference, the district attorney noted that Schenectady's former chief code inspector was never a target of the criminal investigation. Eric Shilling had led the code enforcement bureau until his sudden and unexpected death on February 10.
The Jay Street fire caused thousands of dollars worth of damage and forced several businesses to temporarily close their doors. That includes businesses such Bel Cibo, which sat right next door to the apartment building where the fire started, now just a vacant lot.
The fire happened just three days after the business opened. The restaurant closed for 11 months due to damage.
Owner Jeanette Massaro estimates that, altogether, the fire cost her $40,000 through damages and lost profits. Massaro hasn’t taken any legal action against anyone involved, but there are several other lawsuits pending right now.
Massaro says she’s pleased with the indictments.
“I am glad that there is a closure. I am glad more that there is a closure for the families, because this is my business," she said. "I got to go home. Everything was safe at home.
"We lost profits. We lost so much because we had just opened so everything was stored in the basement, and everything was floating in 8 feet of water for days, so you couldn’t save anything."
Attorney Phil Rodriguez, who represents the owner of a building that was destroyed by the fire, predicts that the owner of the building where the fire started is now more likely to settle with plaintiffs.
Terry Stackhouse also contributed to this report.