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Building inspector didn't check smoke detectors, Jay Street resident testifies

Building inspector didn't check smoke detectors, Jay Street resident testifies

'They just looked around the apartment real quick, about a minute'
Building inspector didn't check smoke detectors, Jay Street resident testifies
Schenectady firefighters battle a two-alarm blaze at 104 Jay St. on March 6, 2015.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER

SCHENECTADY — Lorenzo Scionti took an apartment at 104 Jay St. with his girlfriend and two cats a few months before the fatal March 2015 blaze.

scionti.JPG

Pictured: Lorenzo Scionti

The apartment had smoke detectors, he testified Thursday, but also a bathroom ceiling that leaked when the tenant above took a shower.

On the day before the fire, Scionti was present when building manager Jason Sacks and city building inspector Kenneth Tyree arrived to inspect his apartment as part of a broader inspection of the building.

Tyree, Scionti said, never checked his smoke detector and never said anything about the hole in his bathroom ceiling.

"They just looked around the apartment real quick, about a minute," Scionti said at Tyree's criminally negligent homicide trial. "Just looked around and left."

Scionti's testimony offered a different perspective of Tyree's inspection at 104 Jay St. The inspection is at the heart of the case against him.

Later Thursday, the jury heard a detective read Tyree's written statement of his actions during the inspection. Tyree wrote of the building's fire alarm system, "All was good to my knowledge."

Scionti gave his own account of the state of the fire alarm system, as well as his harrowing account of escape from the burning building that included saving his cats in a backpack and encountering a jammed second-floor fire escape door. 

Scionti is the second resident of the building to say he encountered a jammed fire escape door. Survivor Anthony Cortese testified earlier that the fourth-floor fire escape door was also jammed, blocking access to the fire escape as the building burned.

Tyree, 53, of Schenectady, is accused of failing to act on dangers he observed, or should have observed, during that inspection of 104 Jay St., including an inoperable fire alarm system and missing fire doors. Four people died in the blaze and dozens of others were injured.

He faces manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide counts that carry a 5- to 15-year term. He maintains his innocence.

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

Scionti testified the day after Sacks took the stand as part of a plea agreement. Sacks pleaded guilty last month to four counts of criminally negligent homicide and is to receive 1 to 3 years in state prison.

Sacks told the jury the two visited each of the apartments and Tyree checked all the battery-operated alarms and visually inspected the hard-wired alarms.

In addition to Scionti saying Tyree didn't check his alarm, Cortese testified Tuesday that he had his own lock on his apartment door inaccessible to Sacks or others. Cortese wasn't present for the inspection.

Scionti has since been sent to prison for a Rensselaer County weapons count. He said he had no convictions prior to the fire.

As a tenant of 104 Jay St., Scionti's apartment was on the second floor at the top of the first set of stairs.

He recalled never hearing the fire alarm go off. But he did hear the alarm box inside the building repeatedly beep on multiple occasions loud enough to hear it up the stairs in his second-floor apartment.

Another tenant showed him how to silence the beep through the silence button on the alarm box. The door to the box was never locked, he said.

"The first couple times I told Jay about it," Scionti said of the building manager, "and he said just go down and silence it."

On cross-examination by Tyree's attorney, Mark Gaylord, Scionti said he didn't notice any lights on the box when he hit the silence button. Under questioning by prosecutor Michael Nobles, however, Scionti said he wasn't looking for lights, just the silence button.

Prosecutors have argued that Tyree missed critical warning lights on the box that indicated the system was inoperable. 

On the morning of the fire, Scionti said, he remained up when he heard police arrive on his floor for a noise complaint down the hall. After the officers left, Scionti said, he was talking with another person. "As we were talking, we heard somebody yell 'Fire! Fire!'"

The person said a fire had broken out on one of the upper floors. Scionti and his neighbor ran up and saw smoke. He said he helped someone get oxygen tanks out of the building and returned for his cats.

He shoved his angry cats into a backpack and went for the fire escape, he testified.

"I tried to go out the back emergency fire escape," Scionti said, "but the door was jammed. It  wouldn't budge."

He gave up and went down the front stairs to escape.

Tyree's handwritten statement to investigators is dated April 1, 2015, less than a month after the fire. The Gazette obtained a copy of the statement last fall in a pre-trial court filing.

Tyree wrote that he looked at the fire alarm box "to make sure the green lights" were lit and everything checked out as far as he knew.

Tyree wrote that he asked Sacks about the lack of fire doors to the stairways, a condition that prosecutors contend helped the fire to spread quickly. Sacks contended he didn't need them, Tyree wrote. When Tyree said that he did, Sacks responded he took them off to paint and patch the hallway walls, Tyree wrote.

There was a lack of bathroom ventilation in each apartment, Tyree wrote. Exit doors were clear of clutter and debris, he continued.

Tyree wrote the inspection lasted from about 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Investigators uncovered street surveillance video of Tyree and Sacks at a property on Crane Street at about noon that day. In a later video recorded statement expected to be entered into evidence soon, investigators confronted Tyree about the discrepancy. An investigator testified at a pre-trial hearing that Tyree reacted in disbelief when confronted with the issue. Tyree didn't have an answer and couldn't remember that happening.

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