SCHENECTADY — City building inspector Kenneth Tyree's actions the day before the massive 2015 Jay Street blaze that killed four directly led to the deaths of those people, a prosecutor said Thursday.
Tyree knew or should have known that the fire alarm system was inoperable and that fire doors were missing, prosecutor Michael DeMatteo told a jury in the criminally negligent homicide case.
Without the alarm, residents and firefighters weren't notified of the growing blaze, DeMatteo said. And because the building didn't have fire doors, the blaze was able to spread quickly, he said.
"If the defendant had done his job properly at the time of the inspection, hours before the fire, we would not be here," DeMatteo told the jury, "and the four people who perished the next day would still be living."
Tyree's defense attorney, Mark Gaylord, countered in his own opening that Tyree wasn't certified to conduct a fire alarm inspection. He did everything asked of him, Gaylord said.
The prosecution of Tyree, he said, has amounted to a witch hunt, one in which prosecutors find significance where there is none.
"Mr. Tyree really is a scapegoat in this case," Gaylord told the jury. "And when you hear the proof in this case, remember those words, what I'm saying to you. That he's a scapegoat. He's a fall guy. He's the end result of finger pointing. ... But he did not commit any crimes."
Tyree, 53, of Schenectady, faces four counts each of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide — one for each of the four people who died. He also faces other charges.
Tyree inspected the 104 Jay St. building the day before the accidental fire and is accused of failing to act on dangers he observed during that inspection.
Prosecutors have said signs of a malfunction in the fire alarm box, as well as Tyree's observations about fire doors, showed conscious disregard for the risks posed and that Tyree lied when he said he saw indications that the system was operational.
If convicted, Tyree faces 5 to 15 years in state prison. He previously rejected a plea offer that would have resulted in one year in jail. He maintains his innocence.
DeMatteo outlined the case to the jury, from recounting stories of individuals who escaped the building to Tyree's inspection and his statements afterward.
The first two witnesses, both dispatchers, resulted in four 911 calls from that morning being played. One caller told the dispatcher to please help and said he couldn't breathe. Another one, asked if there was a fire alarm in the building, responded "yes, but it's not going off."
Killed in the fire were Harry Simpson, 59; Robert Thomas, 31; Jermaine Allen, 37; and Berenices Suarez, 33. Dozens of others were injured.
The 104 Jay St. building manager, Jason Sacks, had been charged along with Tyree, accused of his own role. He pleaded guilty last month and is expected to testify in Tyree's trial.
DeMatteo told how investigators saw the lack of fire doors when looking at the building. They also recovered the fire alarm box and determined it had been fully inoperable for about two weeks prior to the fire.
Sacks canceled the alarm-monitoring contract when he was hired as building manager the previous fall. The alarm company faxed notice to the city, but for some reason that fax was never seen, DeMatteo said.
With that, the fire department wasn't notified of alarms and Sacks had shown residents how to silence the alarms. With no fire department response, the alarms were never reset.
By Feb. 21, 2015, the entire system had been silenced, system records showed.
Tyree told investigators the system was working when he inspected, DeMatteo said. However, investigators purchased the same kind of system to see what it would have shown to someone looking at it. It would have highlighted "fire alarm" and "alarm silenced," contradicting Tyree.
Tyree also estimated later he was at Jay Street for about four hours, but his tablet computer and street cameras showed him at a Crane Street property about midway through his window of time.
Tyree also told investigators his tablet wasn't working during the Jay Street inspection. But the tablet showed the Crane Street inspection from the same day, DeMatteo said.
Gaylord dismissed the tablet issues. The system was new and had problems. Required forms weren't always downloaded. His time estimate also came later, Gaylord said, and his superior estimated an inspection of that building would have taken about as long as Tyree was there, two or two-and-a-half hours.
Gaylord also argued Tyree then was still a provisional inspector and couldn't write a violation on his own. DeMatteo, however, argued he'd done 500 previous inspections.
The trial is expected to take between four and six weeks. Judge Matthew Sypniewski is presiding.