Editorial: Fire indictments produce more questions than answers

Why has this taken 2 years to reach this point?
A friend of a victim placed this candle and flower in the snow in front of the buildings on Jay Street destroyed by fire.
A friend of a victim placed this candle and flower in the snow in front of the buildings on Jay Street destroyed by fire.

After two years, we should have a lot more answers.

Instead, we’ve got a lot more questions.

Monday marks the two-year anniversary of the fire that destroyed three buildings on Jay Street in Schenectady, killing four occupants, injuring seven others and making 60 people homeless.

On Thursday, District Attorney Robert Carney indicted two people in connection with the fire, including the city inspector who allegedly lied when he said he inspected the building immediately prior to the fire, and the building manager, who allegedly allowed the fire alarm and smoke detection system to stop working and canceled the service to notify fire officials of an alarm.

Now the questions.

Why has this taken two years to reach this point, and why wasn’t action taken prior to this?

Let’s start with the city.

Why has nothing been done to this point to address the situation that led up to the indictments? Did the city conduct its own investigation into the fire? If so, why hasn’t that been reported? And if it didn’t conduct its own investigation, why didn’t it? Was it waiting for the district attorney’s office to do its work for it?

Like the district attorney’s office, the city had all the relevant documents available to it during the past two years, and it had all the involved individuals available for questioning.

Yet for two years, the codes department has been allowed to continue on as if nothing had happened. And now we find out two years later through a grand jury that one of the city’s inspectors, Kenneth Tyree, allegedly lied about conducting an inspection of the building, where he should have discovered the alarm system wasn’t working properly and that there were no fire doors to prevent the fire from spreading.

The city had been notified the previous October that the building’s monitoring service had been canceled. Why was no action taken then to find out why the service was canceled and to take steps to restore it?

Despite these questions, the city allowed Tyree to continue working in the department for almost two years after the fire, and only acted to remove him when criminal charges were brought Thursday.

Why wasn’t he suspended right after the fire, pending an investigation? Why was he allowed to continue inspecting buildings, given that this building appeared to have been his responsibility? Did anyone in the city think it might be a good idea to look into his past work?

Mayor Gary McCarthy admitted Thursday the codes department was understaffed. Did the mayor or anyone else in city government bother to ask after the fire whether that staffing level might have contributed to lax inspections that might have led to the fire?

Isn’t it possible that that understaffing continues to contribute to buildings in the city not being adequately inspected? Or was this an isolated incident of one person not doing his job?

The fatal fire should have been the impetus for the city to fully review the department, its procedures and its staffing levels.
Yet apparently, things went on as business as usual until the indictments were handed up on Thursday.

City residents should be angry and fearful, until someone can convince them otherwise.

More questions.

How far up the chain of command did or should responsibility for this fire go? Who is ultimately responsible? Should the buck have stopped at the building and codes office and former department head Eric Shilling, who died last month? Does it stop at Tyree?

Or should the mayor and the City Council bear some culpability for not taking more direct action before or after the fire to either prevent it or to ensure something like this couldn’t happen again?

These questions have yet to be answered, and someone in city government must answer them.

Immediately after the fire, the district attorney’s office took possession of relevant building inspection documents, even those public documents created prior to and separately of the criminal investigation.

That means the media and members of the public had no access to the documents for the past two years.

Might have the public availability of those documents shed more light on problems within the city code office and the cause of the Jay Street fire? Might the publication of those documents have inspired knowledgeable people to come forward with their own information or concerns? Might public knowledge of the contents of those documents have inspired members of the public to demand more action from the city?

We’ll never know because the district attorney’s office prevented the public from viewing these documents — along with email exchanges between city officials related to the fire — under a disputed interpretation of the state’s Freedom of Information Law.

We’re glad that someone is being held responsible for the fatal fire.

Those responsible for the four deaths, the injuries and the damage should be punished. Kudos to the district attorney for being dogged in not letting this matter drop.

But why has the criminal investigation taken so long?

We understand that criminal prosecutions are complicated and sometimes take longer than people think they should. Interrogations of witnesses and suspects often don’t immediately bear fruit that can lead to charges. We do understand that.

But the cause of the fire has been known and reported publicly for some time. All the code enforcement documents were confiscated by the district attorney’s office as part of the investigation shortly after the fire. All potential witnesses in the criminal case were available for the past two years.

Yet a grand jury wasn’t convened until five months ago, it’s taken a full two years to get indictments in the case, and prosecutors say the investigation is still open. What else needs to be done and how long might the public have to wait for the next batch of answers?

At least give the public some insight as to what’s taking so long.

The indictments by themselves fail to answer a lot of questions the public has a right to have answered.

In fact, they raise a lot more.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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