Eighteen people left homeless by a massive fire in two apartment buildings on Jay Street early Friday morning are settling in for a full weekend at an emergency shelter at Christ Church on State Street, wearing donated clothing and eating meals provided by the American Red Cross.
The fire victims gathered in small groups at the shelter Saturday morning, sharing stories of what was lost — “everything” being the most common word — and pointing to photos in newspapers, showing each other where their apartments were, telling about how they got out and swapping theories about what happened.
“We’re assisting [Department of Social Services] to find them places to go,” said Charles Diorio of the Red Cross. “But the government isn’t open until Monday. So we’re not going to be able to place anyone until Monday. But we’re working on it.”
The fire displaced 60 residents of 100-102 and 104 Jay St., just across from Schenectady City Hall, when it gutted the buildings early Friday morning. According to police, “several” residents remain unaccounted for as of Saturday, though an exact number has not been released.
Five people were sent to Ellis Medicine Friday, one to Albany Medical Center and another to Westchester Medical Center’s Trauma and Burn Center. Their conditions were not made available Saturday.
Three firefighters were also injured while battling the blaze. They were treated at Ellis Medicine and released on Friday.
On Jay Street Saturday morning, residents milled around taking photos, staring up at the blackened remains of the top two floors of the brick buildings and, in a few cases, being turned away by police as they tried to re-enter the building.
Richard Holcomb, who said he lived on the fourth floor of the building, planted a yellow rose and small candle in the snow near city hall for his friend, who he says did not make it out.
“Harry is still in there, trust me,” he said, pointing up to an apartment. “I know for a fact he never got out.”
Officials have not confirmed any deaths in the fire.
Holcomb is staying with his sister and, like many displaced by the fire, said he lost everything but the clothes on his back. He used a credit card given to the fire victims by the Red Cross to replace his cellphone and a few other necessities, he said.
“I don’t have nothing in the world,” he said. “I don’t have no money, I don’t have nothing.”
The building has been declared a total loss, and City Building Inspector Eric Shilling said demolition would likely start Sunday morning. So far, no cause has been declared. Schenectady police Lt. Mark McCracken said it will likely be “several days” before that’s determined.
Investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrived Friday and an ATF National Response Team was on the scene Saturday. An ATF spokesman said Friday their involvement is part of a routine response to fire scenes, especially where there is large property damage or possible loss of life.
At the Christ Church shelter, there was no shortage of community support for the fire victims. Person after person came to the doors of the church with bags and boxes full of clothes, shoes and other supplies – so much so that Red Cross volunteers had to start turning them away by 11 a.m.
“Right now our supplies are excellent,” said volunteer Dara Young. “The community has been awesome with coming in, donating clothes, but we don’t need that because our Red Cross policy is not to have any clothes donated unless they’re brand new and sealed.”
Donations are now being directed to the Salvation Army at 222 LaFayette St. Monetary donations can be made by calling 1-800-RED-CROSS or going to www.redcross.org.
Schenectady’s Millennial Council is also collecting donations for the fire victims at www.gofundme.com/o1qnnc. As of 2 p.m. Saturday, the campaign had raised $2,800. Mohawk Ambulance and MVP Healthcare have also been collecting donations.
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said a portion of Jay Street near City Hall will likely remain closed into Tuesday as the investigation, and then demolition, is carried out.
He said the investigation is complicated by the condition of the buildings, as well as the weather. The buildings still have gas and electricity, he said, which has to be shut off, but the shut-offs are inside the “collapse zone” under the unstable front wall of the buildings.
“So you can’t go in and shut off the gas and electricity, because it would put those crews in harm’s way,” he said. “So we’re making other plans to shut down what would be a larger portion of Jay Street so that they can in fact start the investigation, start to pull the building apart.”
He said police are asking anyone with any connection to the building to call the Schenectady Police Department at 382-5200.
“We do this work-up on every fire,” he said of the investigation. “We don’t want to go in with any assumptions. It could be just a tragic accident, it could be more serious. And we do that with every fire. The scope [of this fire] just makes it more time-consuming.”