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Foss: Was Jay Street fire symptom of larger problem?

Foss: Was Jay Street fire symptom of larger problem?

Sara Foss looks at indictments
Foss: Was Jay Street fire symptom of larger problem?
Schenectady firefighters battle a 2-alarm fire at 104 Jay St. after flames broke out March 6, 2015.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER

An isolated incident?

Or a symptom of a larger, more systemic problem?

These aren't rhetorical questions.

They're questions that need to be answered, ASAP.

Four people died in the deadly 2015 fire on Jay Street, and their deaths could have been prevented, if the indictments handed up by Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney are to be believed.

We can't bring back the people who lost their lives when the poorly maintained building in which they lived went up in flames.

But we can, as a community, demand that nothing like this ever happens again.

We can demand that the city take a good, hard look at the city's Code Enforcement Department.

Is this department properly staffed? Does it do a good enough job of holding property owners accountable for buildings that have fallen into disrepair? Or does it sometimes turn a blind eye to code violations that jeopardize residents' health and safety?

Two men, code enforcement inspector Kenneth Tyree and building manager Jason Sacks, have both been charged with manslaughter in connection with the Jay Street fire.

Are we really to believe that this was the only time a city code enforcement officer failed to do his job, or that a building manager in Schenectady failed to maintain a fire detection system, as Carney's indictments allege?

Frankly, I have a hard time believing that the conditions that existed at 104 Jay Street -- and the failure to fix them or order them fixed -- are unique.

I've heard too many reports of substandard housing and less than rigorous code inspections to dismiss what happened there as a complete abnormality. At the very least, the Jay Street allegations suggest that a deeper, broader investigation into the code enforcement department is warranted.

Carney has said that his investigation is ongoing, and the state Comptroller's Office is conducting an audit of inspections of multifamily residential buildings in Schenectady.

These are welcome developments, but they are not enough.

The Schenectady City Council needs to take an interest in this matter. So does Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy.

The Jay Street fire was not a natural disaster that nobody could have foreseen or prepared for.

It was the result of human error and poor judgment, and it should have prompted the mayor and the council to take a closer look at the circumstances that contributed to the deadliness of the blaze. But it didn't, despite the many troubling questions that emerged in aftermath of the fire.

We now know that the city Codes Department received a fax in October 2014 from the alarm monitoring service for 104 Jay St., informing the department that the service had been canceled. But there was no response from the city, and the council and the mayor should be asking why.

They should be reviewing all of the inspections Tyree has performed since the fire. They should be treating the revelations contained in last week's indictments as a matter of life and death, for the simple reason that they are.

Here are four names to remember: Harry Simpson, Robert Thomas, Berenices Suarez and Jermaine Allen.

These people died in the Jay Street fire, and they deserve better.

They deserve answers, honesty, transparency and a willingness to hold people accountable for a tragedy that didn't have to happen, and might not have happened had people done their jobs. They need us to learn from what happened, and make whatever changes are necessary to fix the problems that got us where we are today.

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at sfoss@dailygazette.net. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog can be found here.

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