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Tyree takes stand in Jay Street fire trial

Tyree takes stand in Jay Street fire trial

Cross-examination is expected Thursday morning
Tyree takes stand in Jay Street fire trial
Kenneth Tyree at the county courthouse Feb. 8, 2018.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER

SCHENECTADY — Kenneth Tyree said he didn't know where the fire alarm panel at 104 Jay St. was on the day he inspected it — the day before a deadly fire.

Building manager Jason Sacks had to point it out, the former housing inspector testified Wednesday.

Tyree said he then went over and looked at it quickly.

"I saw some green lights and that was about it," Tyree said in his own defense at his criminally-negligent homicide trial. The charge against him stems from the March 2015 fire that killed four and injured dozens of others. If convicted, Tyree could get up to 5 to 15 years in state prison.

CodeAlarm.JPG

CodeAlarm2.JPG
The top photo is how the panel screen would have looked at the time of the March 5, 2015, inspection, according to testimony. The bottom is the panel screen in normal working order with no issues. (Provided)

Prosecutors contend the panel showed something else, illuminated warning lights that even someone with no training would have understood to be an issue.

Tyree's failure to act is at the heart of the case against him. Prosecutors say he did not take action on key warning signs that indicated the alarm system was inoperable. The fire broke out early on the morning after Tyree's inspection.

Tyree, 54, took the stand Wednesday afternoon after the prosecution rested its case. His attorney, Mark Gaylord, completed his questioning of Tyree, but time ran out before the prosecutor could question him. Cross-examination is expected Thursday morning.

Much of Gaylord's questioning centered on how Tyree got the inspector's job, his training and conversations he had with his supervisor, Dominic Viscariello, both before and after the inspection.

Tyree testified he had never inspected such a large building and he expressed concerns over that to Viscariello when presented with the task the day prior to the inspection.

"I told him I was nervous about doing an inspection like that," Tyree said. "I had never done anything like that before. Over and over I told him. He's like 'You'll be fine. You'll be fine.'"

Tyree said he didn't get the file on 104 Jay St. showing its history until the morning of March 5. The file, he estimated, was about 2 inches thick.

Tyree found a paper with a printed note saying the building needed fire alarm and boiler inspections. Tyree took the paper to Viscariello and his supervisor added notes in red ink.

Viscariello, who had performed inspections in the building in the past, also told Tyree about the fire alarm system and said it was monitored, Tyree testified. Viscariello even explained what monitored meant, he said.

Gaylord has portrayed Tyree as an inspector who was poorly trained by the city and was the scapegoat in the whole incident.

Tyree testified he had no training on fire alarm systems. He had heard the term "fire watch," but didn't know what it meant. (A fire watch requires on-site monitoring of the building.) He also appeared to suggest he didn't fully understand fire doors.

Prosecutors have said Tyree should have understood that the fire alarm system was inoperable and called for either a fire watch or evacuation of the building. The building also lacked fire doors on stairwells, allowing the fire to spread quickly.

In the statement he read in court, Tyree wrote that he noticed the fire doors were missing to the stairwells and told Sacks he needed them. Sacks, Tyree wrote, responded he had taken them off to paint.

Tyree said he got the inspector job with the help of Viscariello, whom he said he'd known for a dozen years; they had been friends.

It was Viscariello who made the final recommendation to head building inspector Eric Shilling to hire him, Tyree said. Shilling did so.

Tyree also said he reiterated to Viscariello that he'd been in trouble 30 years earlier. He said Viscariello told him not to worry, that was more than 10 years ago and the city didn't do background checks.

One of the charges against Tyree is he failed to disclose his prior convictions on his application.

His on-the-job training was limited to about three weeks, he said. He then worked toward his state certification, but had yet to receive it by the time of the Jay Street inspection.

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