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Jay Street fire jury hears about survivor's narrow escape

Jay Street fire jury hears about survivor's narrow escape

He recalls '50-50 shot' at jumping to safety
Jay Street fire jury hears about survivor's narrow escape
Anthony Cortese, pictured in 2015, on Tuesday painted a picture of a building that was a death trap.
Photographer: Daily Gazette file photo

SCHENECTADY — Anthony Cortese woke up to screaming.

Harry Simpson, his fellow resident on the fourth floor of 104 Jay St., was yelling for help. At 2 a.m. on March 6, 2015, Cortese followed Simpson back to Simpson's apartment. A chair inside, Cortese recounted Tuesday to a jury, was aflame, "like the Hindenburg."

"I just looked at them and said 'Guys, we got to get the hell out of here,'" Cortese recalled telling Simpson and another roused resident. "'We got to go.'"

The fire spread rapidly through 104 Jay St., claiming the lives of Simpson and three others and injuring dozens more.

Cortese's account of the fire, his survival and the weeks and months prior to the blaze painted a picture of a building that was a death trap.

The smoke and fire never triggered an alarm, and a manual fire alarm that Cortese fought through smoke to find and activate failed to sound. The door to the fire escape was jammed and it had windows that the fire quickly penetrated, Cortese recalled.

In the weeks before the fire, the fire alarm box, located on the ground floor, didn't work, Cortese said. 

Cortese admitted he doesn't know much about fire alarm systems, but he recalled seeing the door to the alarm box open with wires hanging out.

"I knew one thing; it didn't work. Just no way."

Cortese spoke during the third day of testimony at the criminally negligent homicide trial of former city building inspector Kenneth Tyree.

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.

He faces manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide counts that carry a five- to 15-year term. He maintains his innocence.

A second man, building manager Jason Sacks, pleaded guilty last month to criminally negligent homicide and is to be sentenced to 1 to 3 years in state prison.

Much of Cortese's testimony Tuesday centered around Sacks and his actions prior to the blaze.

Cortese said Sacks tried to prepare for the inspection. He even gave Cortese an off-the-shelf smoke detector for his apartment days prior for Cortese to install himself. It was never installed.

At one point, Cortese recalled accompanying Sacks down a hallway as Sacks enlisted Cortese to fix things prior to the inspection.

As they went, Cortese saw a fire alarm pull station that, when pulled, triggered no alarm.

"[Sacks] took his hand and he just folded it back up," Cortese said.

Fire alarms used to sound at the building regularly, and the Fire Department would respond. But according to prosecutors, that changed after Sacks canceled the building's alarm monitoring service.

Cortese also never saw doors on stairwells that prosecutors said would have slowed the fire's progress.

On the morning of the fire, Cortese said he heard no alarms. He knew Simpson and recalled stopping by Simpson's apartment to talk with him often.

Outside Simpson's apartment that morning, Cortese saw flames hitting the ceiling. He first contemplated trying to put it out, but then he saw a bookshelf was also ablaze.

Another resident, Ron Crandall, was also there.

Simpson followed Cortese to Cortese's apartment.  Cortese grabbed some items before fighting through smoke in order to reach an alarm pull station. He pulled it, but nothing happened.

Simpson, at some point, left Cortese, who went for the door to the fire escape. It wouldn't budge. The door, Cortese recalled, was  an off-the-shelf door with windows. He gave up and retreated back to his apartment to a window.

"I started to think of a way out," he said. "I wanted fresh air and sat on the window sill, one leg in and one leg out."

He didn't see Simpson again, he said.

"But I could hear him screaming," he recalled.

Cortese saw what he first thought was debris falling from above him, but he quickly realized it was a person who had jumped. The man appeared to have been injured in the fall, but alive.

The fire escape appeared to be within reach of Cortese's window. He knew the fire had advanced to the hall outside because his doorknob was hot, he said.

The fire also burst through the fire escape door window and flames shot through.

Seeing the man jump, Cortese recalled, thinking: "Well, I've got to do the same thing."

He looked at the fire escape and cables along the building. He recalled thinking he had a 50-50 shot of making it.

He jumped and reached the fire escape, suffering a burn on his stomach from the fire-heated metal, but he made it to the ground otherwise unharmed.

He later saw Crandall outside, in front of the building, he said.

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

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