Tyree lawyers question training before fatal Jay Street fire

Inspector may not have known what a 'fire watch' is, attorney says
Kenneth Tyree leaves the courtroom.
Kenneth Tyree leaves the courtroom.

SCHENECTADY — Kenneth Tyree’s lawyer on Monday tried to portray the former city employee as a poorly trained inspector who was in over his head.

Tryee is facing charges of criminally negligent homicide for his role in failing to prevent a deadly fire on Jay Street in March of 2015.

He had limited training, had never inspected a building as large as 104 Jay St, and he didn’t know what a “fire watch” was, the defense suggested during his questioning of Tyree’s former supervisor, .

Tyree’s supervisor, Dominic Viscariello, testified previously that he instructed Tyree to check 104 Jay St.’s fire alarm system for any “red flags,” but Tyree defense attorney Mark Gaylord said handwritten notes Viscariello gave Tyree ahead of the inspection cast doubt on that claim.

A document given to Kenneth Tyree ahead of his March 5, 2015, inspection of 104 Jay St. Tyree’s supervisor Dominic Viscariello testified he provided Tyree the handwritten notes on the document in red. He did not know who prepared the original printed document.

“You didn’t write any of that on here, did you?” Gaylord asked.

Viscariello said he did not.

Tyree, a former city housing inspector, inspected the apartment building at 104 Jay St. the day before the fatal March 6, 2015 fire there.

He is accused of failing to act on dangers he observed, or should have observed, during that inspection, leading to the deaths of residents Harry Simpson, 59; Robert Thomas, 31; Jermaine Allen, 37; and Berenices Suarez, 33. Dozens of others were injured.

Gaylord argued in opening statements that Tyree is a scapegoat and committed no crimes.

Viscariello had testified under questioning by prosecutor Michael DeMatteo on Friday, but time ran out, leading to Monday morning’s cross-examination.

Viscariello said Monday that he knew Tyree through a relative for at least five years before Tyree was hired in January of 2014. Viscariello even served as a reference for Tyree when Tyree applied for the job.

Tyree had the required background in construction, Viscariello said.

He also vouched for Tyree as a hard worker to head building inspector Eric Shilling, Viscariello said.

Viscariello sat in on some of the job interviews, including Tyree’s, but Shilling was the one who made the hire, following civil service rules.

Among other allegations against Tyree is that he failed to disclose prior convictions, also as required.

Tyree is expected to take the stand later this week.

Viscariello testified that Tyree’s training consisted of shadowing each of the city’s other inspectors, and then Viscariello himself, for one week each. Tyree started work Jan. 13, 2014, Viscariello said. 

Prosecutors earlier entered into evidence a list of all of Tyree’s rental inspections. Gaylord pointed out during questioning that Tyree’s first inspections were logged on Feb. 3, 2014, three weeks after he was hired.

DeMatteo countered in later questioning that the list didn’t indicate whether any inspections involved continued shadowing.

Viscariello also said Tyree spent a day with him, not a week, because he felt Tyree was ready.

New inspectors work toward getting their state certification through six courses. Viscariello believed Tyree was working on his sixth course at the time of the Jay Street fire and wasn’t yet certified.

Prosecutors contend the fire alarm system had indicators that showed “fire alarm,” “alarm silenced” and “trouble,” all in a way that anyone looking at it would have noticed.

Tyree previously told investigators he saw a green light and no issues. 

The jury Monday afternoon got its first in-depth look at the alarm system and how investigators concluded what the system would have shown. A small chip in the alarm box recorded alarm events and showed the system had been completely inoperable for two weeks prior to the fire.

Prosecutors said that had Tyree acted on what he saw in the building he would have had two options: require residents to leave until the issue was fixed, or call for a fire watch. 

A fire watch is essentially someone responsible for patrolling for fires until the issue is resolved.

Viscariello called for a fire watch himself at 104 Jay St.  in February 2014 for a damaged alarm system, he testified. He also testified he inspected units on two floors at 104 Jay St. in June 2014. Fire doors were present at that time, he said.

Viscariello confirmed under questioning by Gaylord that Tyree had never ordered a fire watch before.

“Do you know if he knew what a fire watch was?” Gaylord asked.

“I’m assuming he did,” Viscariello responded, though Viscariello said he never explained the term to Tyree before the fire.

Tyree had previously ordered residents to leave structures due to a lack of smoke detectors, Viscariello testified on Friday.

The trial was slated to continue Tuesday, when prosecutors indicated they could rest their case.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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