Six months after the horrific fire that ripped through two Jay Street apartment buildings, it looks as though nothing ever happened.
All traces of the former buildings have been cleaned up. The vacant site has been filled and is awaiting development. The street has been paved, and lines repainted for on-street parking.
A disheveled memorial can be seen tucked away in the fenced-in site. Some of the candles have fallen and a white poster lies facedown on the ground.
Four people died in the blaze that tore through 104 Jay St. and spread to 100-102 Jay St. in the early morning of Thursday, March 6.
For some, the impact of the fire has faded with time. For others, the tragedy lives on.
Ron Crandall said the fire alarms going off at his new apartment building in Albany are a “stark reminder” of what he went through on Jay Street.
Crandall, 53, sustained serious injuries in the fire, and barely made it out of 104 Jay St. He was airlifted to Westchester Medical Center’s burn unit and treated for second- and third-degree burns to his feet, right hand and face.
“I’m still going to Westchester Medical Center for follow-ups as part of the healing process,” he said. “I still have a long road ahead of me. What I’m doing is just taking things one day at a time and looking forward to the future.”
Crandall visits Schenectady sometimes and said seeing the site where the buildings once stood is becoming less painful with time.
“The first time that I went by they had just finished tearing the buildings down,” he said. “It was very difficult to see the site. Since then I have only gone past a couple of times.”
Harry Simpson, 59, was in his apartment on the fourth floor of 104 Jay St. when around 2 a.m. his chair in the living room caught fire from a candle, cigarette or incense.
He tried to drag the chair out of his apartment, but it got wedged in the front door. Inside his apartment, an open window provided oxygen to fuel the fire, which spread quickly down the hallway, to the back of the building and over to 100-102 Jay St.
“We were inside trying to make an offensive attack to knock the fire down early on, but the building construction helped the fire spread,” Fire Chief Ray Senecal said. “Between the two buildings was a light shaft. You don’t usually see that. That’s why the fire spread so quickly.”
Simpson banged on the door of his neighbor, Ron Crandall, yelling that they had to get out of the building.
City firefighters and investigators with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found Simpson’s body a week later in the fourth-floor hallway.
Also recovered from 104 Jay St. were Robert Thomas, 31, Berenices Suarez, 33, and her boyfriend Jermaine Allen, 37.
“I called 911, went through the flames and headed toward the staircase,” Crandall said during an interview with a Daily Gazette reporter on March 26. “I ended up on the ground, burning. I saw the flames shooting up. I pulled myself together and managed to run down a couple of flights of stairs and collapsed in the lobby.”
Six other people were sent to the hospital that night, including Jonathan Moya-Perez, who jumped from the fifth floor of 104 Jay St. and sustained two fractured vertebrae, a lacerated liver and a right heel fracture.
Senecal said a dozen firefighters rescued about 60 people from 104 Jay St. that night.
“We had about 12 firefighters in the building and we got them all out,” he said. “The police entered the second building. We also made a rescue about 30 minutes into the fire. We pulled a lady off a terrace of the building by Liberty Street.”
Crandall said his new apartment doesn’t feel like home yet. The support from family and friends has helped with the process of recovery, he said.
“I want to stay busy,” he said. “I don’t want to sit home and dwell on what happened. That’s not healthy.”
100-104 JAY ST.
As dozens of people panicked to escape the two buildings, firefighters and police officers ran inside to get people out. Firefighters aimed hoses in all directions, shooting millions of gallons of water on the structures.
“When I went to fire headquarters to get my vehicle I could actually see the fire from Station 1,” Senecal said. “I didn’t have any idea of the magnitude of the fire until then.”
The bitter cold temperatures, mixed with the continuous stream of water, blanketed Jay Street, parked cars and some firefighters in thick layers of ice.
The fire raged through the roofs and broken windows, lighting up the street. Smoke billowed in large clouds from the top of the buildings and disappeared into the night sky.
“Our first concern, as with any fire, is getting people out safely,” Senecal said. “On top of the life-safety issue, you have these huge buildings that we’re trying to prevent the fire from spreading [to]. There was also the threat of collapse and we had embers landing on the roof of City Hall.”
City Hall was opened and the heat cranked up for firefighters to run inside and warm up. People who escaped the fire were brought inside City Hall and later transported to Christ Church on State Street.
“This is like a bad dream I want to get pinched and wake up from,” James Lynch told a Gazette reporter hours after the fire. He safely got out of 100-102 Jay St. with his wife, Kristie. Their two cats were never found.
A person was stationed on the roof of City Hall to monitor the embers that were landing on the roof and floating over to other buildings toward Clinton Street.
Three months later, the top floor of City Hall flooded due to the debris and embers that clogged the roof drains.
Firefighters continued to battle the blaze into the next morning. The ATF arrived a few days later to help with recovery efforts the week after the fire and demolition of the buildings a month after the fire.
“It is hard to say there was a good outcome because of the loss of life, but we were able to rescue so many people and we didn’t have the fire spread,” Senecal said. “I’m very proud of the job that the city Fire Department and the Police Department did, and grateful to work with the ATF.”
Senecal, who has been with the department for 26 years and has served as chief for nearly two years, said the Jay Street fire, with the combination of loss of life and size of the buildings, was the biggest fire the city has seen in at least 50 years.
“You can’t react to a fire,” he said. “You have to stay two steps ahead. You have to put all of the excitement and craziness aside. It was truly a group effort.”
The city paid nearly half a million dollars in overtime for the police and fire departments in the month after the Jay Street fire.
The police department had the most overtime costs with a total of $343,862, according to documents provided by the city. The city paid the fire department a total of $127,327 in overtime.
Police worked 5,132 hours in overtime for field service the month after the fire for a total of $227,692 in overtime. Police investigation overtime cost $113,342 for 2,521 hours.
A typical month usually costs the city $36,371 in overtime for firefighters. But from March 6 to April 6, overtime costs more than doubled to $85,567. From March 6 to March 8 alone, firefighters received a total of $15,766 in overtime.
The cost for regular overtime of the arson task force also more than doubled from an average of $4,261 a month to $10,422. A majority of that overtime, nearly $8,000, was between March 16 and March 23.
The city may also be on the hook for half a million dollars in demolition costs because the building’s owners haven’t paid the bill.
Jackson Demolition of Schenectady knocked down the two buildings for $434,000. The owner of 104 Jay St. has insurance but the owner of 100-102 Jay St. does not.
“I would expect the owners to step up and pay,” Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy told a Gazette reporter on April 9. “We will pursue whatever means available to the city to recoup those costs.”
The demolition cost does not include the tab the city had to pay for repaving the road, repairing the sidewalk and installing new lights and utilities.
Meanwhile, Ashok Mirpuri, owner of neighboring 96 and 108 Jay St., hired a contractor to start repairing roof and water damage the two buildings sustained from the demolition and fire department, respectively.
The three businesses in the buildings have been closed since the fire. Persian Bite in 96 Jay St. recently announced plans to move to Union Street and Bel Cibo is looking to expand into Persian Bite’s former space.
Jeanette Massaro, owner of Bel Cibo, said the plan is to move back in and reopen by the end of October or early November.
“We were open three days there and then the fire happened,” she said. “We put in $30,000 for renovations. We have small business insurance but a good 40 to 45 percent of your income is still lost. It was a nightmare. It is my living. It was a terrible tragedy.”
On March 16, the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office issued a grand jury subpoena for Code Enforcement documents related to 100-102 and 104 Jay St.
The records have been sealed from the public’s eye since. The investigation is ongoing. City officials have remained silent.
Shortly after the fire, city Building Inspector Eric Shilling told a Gazette reporter that Code Enforcement inspected all 20 units of 104 Jay St. the day before the fire. An inspector cited the property owner for an expired fire alarm system certification. Shilling said that does not mean it wasn’t working at the time.
Several residents of both buildings complained of maintenance issues while living there. It is unclear if and/or when there will be criminal charges related to the case.
A handful of lawsuits have been filed to date against the property owner and manager of 104 Jay St. The owner is Ted Gounaris, of Nassau County, and manager is Ideal Property Services, located on the Jay Street Marketplace.
•Jesse Pappalau vs. Ted Gounaris and Ideal Property Services
Pappalau lived on the fourth floor and did not suffer serious injuries. James Hacker of E. Stewart Hones Hacker Murphy is representing Pappalau.
• Jonathan Moya-Perez vs. Ted Gounaris and Ideal Property Services
Moya-Perez lived on the fifth floor and suffered serious injuries. He was treated at Albany Medical Center. John Massaroni of the DeLorenzo Law Firm is representing Moya-Perez.
• Angela Hernandez vs. Ted Gounaris and Ideal Property Services
Hernandez is the mother of Berenices Suarez, 33, who died in the fire. Attorneys from the DeLorenzo Law Firm are representing Hernandez.
•Ethel Roberson vs. Ted Gounaris and Ideal Property Services
Roberson is the mother of Robert Thomas, 31, who died in the fire. E. Stewart Jones of E. Stewart Jones Hacker Murphy is representing Roberson.
NOTICES OF CLAIMS
More than a dozen notices of claims against the city have been filed to date over the Jay Street fire. The notices of claims, filed within 90 days after the fire, are precursors to lawsuits.
• Ted Gounaris, of Nassau County, owner of 104 Jay St.
• Vytas Meskauskas, of Ravena Holdings LLC, owner of 100-102 Jay St.
• Benjamin Morales, of Esmeralda Jewelry, tenant of 100-102 Jay St.
• Ashok Mirpuri, owner of neighboring 96 and 108 Jay St.
• Ron Crandall, who lived on the fourth floor and suffered serious injuries. He was treated at Westchester Medical Center’s burn unit.
• Stephanie Acorn, who lived on the third floor and did not suffer serious injuries.
• Jesse Pappalau, who lived on the fourth floor and did not suffer serious injuries.
• Jonathan Moya-Perez, who lived on the fifth floor and suffered serious injuries. He was treated at Albany Medical Center.
• Angela Hernandez, on behalf of Berenices Suarez, 33, who died in the fire. Hernandez is the mother of Suarez.
• Heather Rollins, on behalf of Jermaine Allen, 37, who died in the fire. Rollins is the mother of Allen’s 5-year-old son.
• Ethel Roberson, on behalf of Robert Thomas, 31, who died in the fire. Roberson is the mother of Thomas.
• Robert Reisinger, Marilynn Reisinger and John Sellie Jr., all of 104 Jay St.
• Warren Hickson, of 100-102 Jay St.