The fatal fire on Jay Street two weeks ago was ruled accidental, with the fire starting in Harry Simpson’s apartment on the fourth floor of 104 Jay St.
Simpson, 59, woke up a little before 2 a.m. on March 6 to find his upholstered chair on fire. He tried to drag it out of his apartment (apartment C1), but the chair got stuck in the doorframe and the fire spread through the hallway, authorities said Friday.
Simpson, who was barricaded out of his apartment by the chair, knocked on two neighbors’ doors to alert them of the fire. Simpson did not call 911, but another resident of the building did, said Schenectady Fire Chief Ray Senecal.
A window that was open in Simpson’s apartment provided oxygen to fuel the fire, Senecal said. The fire spread through the hallway, picked up intensity and traveled to the back of the building.
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“The fire at that point advanced through the windows of the building and spread to 100-102 Jay,” Senecal said during a press conference Friday afternoon at City Hall, across from the fire scene.
Simpson died in the fire, along with Berenices Suarez, 33, a resident, and her boyfriend Jermaine Allen, 37. A fourth victim has not yet been identified by the medical examiner.
“The medical examiner has yet to be able to make a positive identification of that subject,” said Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett. “We’re waiting for the issue of dental records from the U.S. military.”
Schenectady County District Attorney Bob Carney said although the fire was not arson, the investigation is still ongoing into the deaths of the four victims.
Carney said the cause and origin of the fire was determined based on physical findings and eyewitness accounts.
A camera at Union College’s College Park Hall on Nott Street provided the city Fire Department and investigators with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives with evidence of how the fire progressed.
When security guards at the college heard about the fire call around 2 a.m., they trained the security camera on the Jay Street fire scene and left it on the fire until 6 a.m., according to college spokesman Phil Wajda. The camera is normally directed at a walkway. The college has since turned the videotape over to ATF.
“You can see the first place where smoke was seen out the window of the C1 apartment,” Carney said. “You see that the beginning stages of the fire smoke was venting out that window, so the fire was in that room at that time.”
Carney said Simpson had cigarettes, incense and candles in the apartment in proximity to the chair, any one of which could have started the fire. Carney said it is unclear which one actually caused the fire.
“He was known to be a heavy smoker,” he said. “He died in the fire so we don’t know exactly what happened.”
The ATF ruled out electrical issues with the fire and the presence of accelerates, Carney said. Senecal said the structure of the buildings was fairly old and the design of the buildings with a light shaft caused the fire to spread quickly.
Carney said compared to other apartments on the fourth floor, Simpson’s apartment was less damaged and relatively intact. That’s because the fire spread out into the hallway from the apartment and went elsewhere, he said.
“Witnesses told us [Simpson] was in the hallway and he was able to yell out and wake up one of his neighbors and pound on another neighbor’s door to wake them up,” he said. “So at some point he left that apartment.”
Carney said if Simpson did not try to drag the chair out of the apartment and leave the apartment door open, the fire would not have spread and claimed the lives of three other people.
At the same time, Carney added that Simpson saved the lives of his two neighbors.
“It’s unfortunate that he didn’t shut the door behind him, and left instead the burning chair propping the door open,” he said. “Had he left it in the apartment and shut the door, this fire may have been survivable.”
Carney’s office issued a grand jury subpoena on Monday for code enforcement documents related to the Jay Street buildings. Carney and Senecal declined comment on Friday beyond the cause and origin of the fire.
Right after the press conference in City Hall, part of the facade of 104 Jay crashed to the ground on Jay Street as Jackson Demolition of Schenectady was working to level the building.
Parts of the building fell in front of the staircase to City Hall. City Building Inspector Eric Shilling said as Jackson tried to pull part of the building back, it pushed forward instead. The demolition continued as normal after the incident.
The demolition of both buildings is expected to take about a month and cost nearly $419,000. Because city firefighters and ATF agents have not searched 100-102 Jay, there is the possibility of additional victims inside.