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'It was just one wall of flame,' fire captain testifies at Jay Street fire trial

'It was just one wall of flame,' fire captain testifies at Jay Street fire trial

Testimony continues in criminally negligent homicide trial of former city building inspector
'It was just one wall of flame,' fire captain testifies at Jay Street fire trial
100-104 Jay Street at 3:10 a.m, just past the 1-hour mark into the fire, Friday, March 6, 2015.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

SCHENECTADY — City Fire Captain Christopher Keough arrived at 104 Jay St. the morning of March 6, 2015, and rushed inside the burning building, along with two fellow firefighters.

Their goal: Find people to rescue.

They made it to the fourth floor -- investigators later determined the fire began there -- and found an inferno, Keough testified Friday at the criminally negligent homicide trial of a former city building inspector.

"As we made our way up the stairway (to the fourth floor), we could just feel the heat starting to build," Keough testified Friday morning. "As soon as we got to the point where we could see the hallway, it was just one wall of flame."

The firefighters got into the hallway, having heard reports of people still trapped inside, but apartments there were engulfed, the conditions unsurvivable, Keough testified. They tried get to the fifth floor but couldn't.

Keough recalled the events during the start of the second day of testimony in the trial of former city building inspector Kenneth Tyree.

Tyree, 53, of Schenectady, faces four counts each of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide — one for each of the four people who died in the massive, accidental early morning blaze. He also faces other charges.

Tyree inspected the 104 Jay St. building the day before the fire and is accused of failing to act on dangers he observed or should have observed during that inspection, including an inoperable fire alarm system and missing fire doors.

Prosecutors have said signs of a malfunction in the fire alarm box, as well as Tyree's observations about fire doors, showed a conscious disregard for the risks posed and that Tyree lied when he said he saw indications the fire alarm 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.

Early testimony in the trial has focused on the fire itself,  including 911 calls, rescuers' recollections, early video and photos of the aftermath. Testimony concerning Tyree's actions during the inspection is not expected to come until later in the trial.

While Keough testified mostly to the rescue attempts, prosecutor Michael DeMatteo also asked about the swiftness of the blaze and how the absence of fire doors could have contributed to that.

"Without a fire door, it allows (the fire) to travel right up that stairway," Keough said.

Tyree defense attorney Mark Gaylord has asked few questions of the preliminary witnesses, though he asked Keough if he made any observations of the fire alarm box as he entered the building. The condition of the fire alarm box is central to the prosecution's case against Tyree.

Keough said he did not look at the alarm box, as his purpose then was to rescue occupants. He told DeMatteo he was headed to a carbon monoxide call when the Jay Street fire call came in. They arrived and entered, passing a burned man in the lobby believed to be survivor Ron Crandall. Seeing that Crandall was safe from the fire and being tended to by a woman before being evacuated, the firefighters continued upward.

They passed the relatively smokeless lower floors as police officers and rescuers roused residents. Police officer Sam Quinones testified Thursday afternoon that he helped in the effort, making it to the third floor. If he got no answer at a door, he kicked it in.

Even the fourth floor was relatively smokeless, Keough testified, an unusual occurrence, as the smoke had apparently found a way out of the building.

Once Keough and the two firefighters made it back outside, the effort became an exterior fight. Firefighters soon learned of a woman inside 100-102 Jay St., the building next door, who was trapped on an upper floor. They used a ladder to rescue her.

The jury saw video of the fire Thursday afternoon, thanks to Union College security officer James Halpin. Hearing the radio dispatches, he moved a camera positioned on the top of College Park Hall from its normal view of the parking lot and aimed it toward the fire scene.

The video first captures smoke coming out of a fourth-floor window. Within minutes, it shows the roof engulfed in flames. Investigators have cited the video as important in helping them understand the progression of the fire.

The blaze left both 104 and 100-102 Jay St. smoldering ruins.

An ATF fire investigator and one from the city fire department showed photos of the aftermath. The roof and fifth floor could be seen collapsed onto the fourth floor in the fire department images taken from a crane days later. The ATF images showed 360-degree views of the burned-out fourth floor after debris was removed.

Killed in the fire were Harry Simpson, 59; Robert Thomas, 31; Jermaine Allen, 37; and Berenices Suarez, 33. Dozens of others were injured.

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