Defense: Inspector in Jay Street fire lacked proper training

Former city worker faces charges in fatal fire
Kenneth Tyree, right, appeared in court in March with his attorney, Sven Paul.
Kenneth Tyree, right, appeared in court in March with his attorney, Sven Paul.

SCHENECTADY — The city code inspector charged in connection with a fatal 2015 Jay Street apartment building fire didn’t have the proper training to inspect the building’s fire system and had never inspected a similar building previously, his defense attorney argued Friday.

Attorney Sven Paul also argued that Kenneth Tyree’s superiors in the city Codes Department advised him the alarm system had already failed inspection because the system did not have current operability certifications.

Paul made the arguments in motions filed Friday in the manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide case against Tyree.

Tyree, 53, of Schenectady, was indicted in March, accused of lying to investigators during the Jay Street fire probe and of failing to do his job.

Tyree inspected 104 Jay St. the day before the March 6, 2015, fire and missed or ignored an inoperable fire response system, prosecutors allege. A fire started accidentally that night, moved swiftly through the building and claimed four lives.

Paul is asking for the charges against Tyree to be dismissed, arguing the more serious charges don’t fit the evidence. Prosecutors have the opportunity to respond and a judge will decide on the motion later.

Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney called the arguments about training, experience and superiors excuses, rather than defenses. Carney had yet to read the newly filed motion, but responded to excerpts read to him by a reporter.

The allegations of Tyree’s training and what his superiors knew about the building’s systems, however, could affect the civil cases spawned by the tragedy, according to an attorney involved in two of those proceedings. 

Paul DeLorenzo said the allegations, if true, could leave the city open for liability. The city has not been named as a defendant in any pending action and standard deadlines to file have passed.

Paul said Friday evening that he based the motion on his investigation to date, including a box full of disjointed evidence already provided by prosecutors.  

“I cannot understand how, assuming what they say happened — and I’m not conceding that — how it would have risen to the level of manslaughter or even criminally negligent homicide,” Paul said.

Prosecutors contend Tyree should have known that the fire system wasn’t working and failed to evacuate it or call for a “fire watch” at the building. He also later lied to investigators when he told them the alarm system was operational when he inspected it, prosecutors allege.

Paul argued that Tyree received no training, either in his state certification program or through the city, in the type of fire alarm system at 104 Jay St. Tyree had no experience on such larger buildings in his approximately two years as an inspector and had no manuals or instructions on the system.

His superiors advised him “that the alarm system, together with the elevator and furnace in the building had already failed inspection” by the city “because they did not have current certifications from qualified inspectors as to their operability,” the defence claims. Paul clarified that that didn’t mean the superiors knew the system didn’t work.

Paul contended three separate calls by his office to the alarm manufacturer Honeywell resulted in three different descriptions of what that model would have shown in such a situation, meaning what the panel would have shown isn’t clear. Each apartment also had its own individual smoke alarm in addition to the hard-wired system, Paul argued.

Paul could find no other example of a building inspector being charged with either manslaughter or negligent homicide based on failure to detect a defect.

Asked about the claims late Friday afternoon, Carney called them arguments for trial or even to lessen a potential sentence.

That the system wasn’t working should have been obvious, Carney said. The panel blinked red, he said.  “That would tell me that something’s wrong.

“Our theory was that the alarm panel was in flashing trouble mode for every floor but the basement,” Carney said, “and it would have been obvious to anybody who looked at it.”

Tyree was also familiar with his evacuation responsibility, Carney said, because Tyree had ordered them in the past for non-functional fire alarms. Carney did not have the size of those buildings available.

“He was aware of the power and the obligation to do so,” Carney said.

The arguments, he said, are excuses for why Tyree shouldn’t be blamed, but don’t change the theory that there was evidence the system was non-functioning and that he should have acted on that evidence. Tyree accepted the city’s salary, Carney noted. 

The city suspended Tyree upon his arrest and he is now no longer a city employee, officials said. Among the other criminal charges against Tyree is that he lied on his 2013 employment application.

Building owners and managers have been charged in the past for tragedies resulting from terrible conditions, Carney said. With their ability to warn and evacuate, that should apply to building inspectors, too, he said.

The 104 Jay St. building manager, Jason Sacks, faces similar manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide counts.

Sacks, 39, of Sanders Avenue, Scotia, is accused of failing to maintain the fire detection system at 104 Jay St. from Oct. 20, 2014, to the date of the fire, tampering with or disturbing the required detection and alarm system while the system was not being monitored and allowing the building to operate with no fire doors in hallway stairwells.

Sacks’ attorney, Paul Edwards, in his own filing made a list of arguments, including asking that Sacks’ statements to investigators be suppressed.

In one alleged statement to the federal ATF three days after the fire, Sacks twice denied having any information about the alarm.  He collected rent, the statement read, he didn’t pay the bills.

Sacks allegedly said then that the alarm went off often, including when people smoked and when they showered. He also showed individuals living there how to reset it.

Killed in the fire were Harry Simpson, 59; Robert Thomas, 31; Jermaine Allen, 37; and Berenices Suarez, 33.

Many of those injured and the estates of those killed have filed lawsuits against the building owner, Ted Gounaris Inc. Many have also filed notices of claim for possible lawsuits against the city. None, however, filed those lawsuits before the standard deadline for such filings passed.

Categories: -News-, Schenectady County

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