Several people were missing, seven injured and 60 displaced after a massive fire at an apartment complex on Jay Street in downtown Schenectady early Friday morning.
The fire started around 2 a.m. and engulfed two buildings, 100-102 and 104 Jay St., leaving firefighters to battle the blaze into the afternoon. The cause of the fire is unknown, according to Fire Chief Ray Senecal. The number of people unaccounted for and their identities are also unknown, police Lt. Mark McCracken said.
Anthony Cortese, 52, of 104 Jay St., got out of the five-story apartment building safely and, along with nearly 30 others, took refuge at Christ Church at 970 State St., which was turned into a shelter by the American Red Cross.
Cortese recounted the incident as he stood in jeans and a jacket with no shirt — the only belongings he has left, plus his cellphone. Cortese said he could hear his friend and neighbor screaming “Help!” as the fire spread into his apartment on the fourth floor.
Cortese said he rushed to check on him and discovered the fire. The fire was too big to put out, he said. He climbed out a window and jumped onto the fire escape, thinking his friend was following behind him. But he was still trapped inside.
“I said ‘Harry, let’s get out of here,’” Cortese said. “As I’m going out the window, I could hear Harry screaming. … I told him to follow me, but he was panicking.”
How to help
The Millennial Council has established a campaign to help raise money for victims of the Jay Street fire. People looking to donate money can visit www.gofundme.com/o1qnnc. As of 10 p.m. Friday, 37 people donated $1,680 in 13 hours.
Also, MVP Health Care has committed to match donations to American Red Cross Disaster Relief until Friday up to a total of $5,000.
Five people were sent to Ellis Medicine, one to Albany Medical Center and another to Westchester Medical Center’s Trauma and Burn Center, said Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett. Conditions were not made available on Friday.
When the Schenectady Fire Department arrived on the scene, along with the Niskayuna and Scotia departments, firefighters rescued one person who jumped from the building, Bennett said.
“As I was going out the window, a guy jumped from above me on the fifth floor,” Cortese said. “I dragged him out of the street.”Three firefighters were injured while battling the blaze, Senecal said. They were treated at Ellis Medicine and released on Friday.
Investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on the scene throughout the day. An ATF spokesman said their involvement is part of a routine response to fire scenes, especially where there is large property damage or possible loss of life. As the investigation proceeds, if it turns out more manpower is needed, ATF will allocate those resources, he said.
City Building Inspector Eric Shilling said the buildings would be demolished to the ground after the investigation is complete. Jackson Demolition of Schenectady was on the scene with demolition machinery Friday afternoon.
Senecal said the buildings were heavily damaged and not safe. The perimeter around Jay Street was blocked to traffic most of the day Friday.
Firefighters also evacuated the entire block of apartment buildings. Ethan Brooks-McDonald, who lives above Pizza King at 124 Jay St., said he was awakened by firefighters pounding on his door at about 3 a.m. and told to evacuate. He said late Friday morning he hadn’t heard when he’d be allowed back.
Persian Bite owner Rasoul Zand closed his restaurant, which is next door to the affected buildings, the night before around 8 p.m. He arrived on the scene by 7 a.m., while the fire was still raging.
“We tried to go and check the place as the day wore on, but they didn’t let us see what was going on,” he said Friday evening. “If we had damage, we don’t know.”
Fire officials told Zand he wouldn’t be able to reopen the restaurant until Monday at the earliest. It’s usually open on Fridays and Saturdays.
Bel Cibo Fine Gourmet Food and Spices sustained water damage in the fire, according to a post on the restaurant’s Facebook page. The restaurant just relocated from a storefront on the Jay Street Pedestrian Mall to the space next door to Persian Bite. It reopened Tuesday.
Scott Fredenburg was helping close up the 20 North Broadway Tavern when he and coworkers saw the fire and smoke. They headed to the scene and got there as the dramatic rescue efforts were underway.
“As we were walking over, we heard someone yelling ‘I don’t want to die. Get me out of here,’” Fredenburg said.
He said they watched as a ladder truck maneuvered the ladder to a rear window of 104 Jay St. and rescued a resident. He believed it was the person he heard yelling.
A video he uploaded to YouTube shows a ladder he identified as being from a Scotia fire truck approaching the building for the first rescue.
“There’s people up there,” Fredenburg says on the video as flames and smoke spewed from the top of the building.
“Get him out! Get him out!” he shouts as the rescue takes place. “Wow.”
The ladder pulls away and an alarm can be heard starting.
He said they also witnessed a similar ladder rescue using searchlights from the side of the building.
“It was scary stuff,” Fredenburg, 36, said.
Samantha Bristol of 100 Jay St. said she was awakened by police banging on her door early Friday morning. She said the officers would not let her take any belongings and wanted her to leave immediately.
“They said ‘You have to get out now,’” said Bristol. “They wouldn’t let me take my rabbit.”
John Sellie of 104 Jay St. was able to grab his cat, Chubbles, and his parents picked up their two cats, Rocky and Lady, before running out of their apartment during the fire. Gary Cherny of 100 Jay St. also took his cat, Felix, before escaping from the building. While he was going out the door, he saw the apartment across from his engulfed in flames.
“Everything was red,” he said. “I woke up at 2 a.m. because I had to go to the bathroom. I’m grateful that I woke up when I did.”
James Lynch of 100 Jay St. was not able to save his two cats before evacuating his apartment on the third floor.
“I was going to take them, but I was told not to by the police,” he said. “I wanted to save them. There is a rumor that some cats got loose, and I’m praying to God it’s ours.”
The shelter at Christ Church had four cats and two dogs. Kimberly Venter, communications director for the Red Cross, said she was happy to see the shelter accommodate the animals.
“We don’t always have the ability to do that, but the county helped us,” she said.
Venter said temporary shelters are established when a large number of people are displaced following a tragedy. The goal is to provide shelter, food and mental health services.
“If there are still a lot of people here by [Friday night], we would set up cots,” she said. “Permanent housing would be preferred. The shelter will remain open through the weekend and as long as needed.”
Lynch said he was still in shock from the incident as he sat with his wife, Kristie, inside Christ Church.
“This is like a bad dream I want to get pinched and wake up from,” he said.
Cortese couldn’t help his neighbor, but he said he is lucky to be alive.
“I’m alive. It is a good day,” he said. “I can’t get over that I made it out of there, but I will never forget the sound of him screaming.”