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Prosecutor grills Tyree over alarm in fatal Jay Street fire

Prosecutor grills Tyree over alarm in fatal Jay Street fire

He says he did not understand how system was supposed to function
Prosecutor grills Tyree over alarm in fatal Jay Street fire
Kenneth Tyree leaves the courtroom.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER

SCHENECTADY — Kenneth Tyree missed important clues during his inspection of 104 Jay St. the day before a deadly fire in March 2015, a prosecutor suggested Thursday in court.

Tyree, who took the stand Wednesday in his defense against charges of criminally negligent homicide, was cross-examined Thursday by prosecutors.

RELATED: Draft audit cites city on certain inspections

Under questioning, he said he had no prior experience with alarm systems and that his supervisor told him to take a quick look at the building's alarm system, but not to touch the box.

His examination of the alarm system panel lasted seconds, and he saw only a green light that indicated to him that there were no issues, he said. The box door was closed.

But prosecutor Michael DeMatteo pointed to Tyree's knowledge that the fire alarm inspection certificate had expired the previous month, suggesting no one had looked at the panel since then.

DeMatteo noted that Tyree said he wasn't supposed to touch the box, but he had been told by the building manager that tenants had touched it.

"Did you go back to see if anything else was wrong?" DeMatteo asked.

Tyree said he did not.

Closing arguments in the case are set for Friday.

Tyree's failure to act is at the heart of the case against him. He is accused of failing to do anything about the fire dangers he saw, or should have seen, during his March 5, 2015, inspection of the building, which was destroyed in a fire the next morning.

That fire led to the deaths of residents Harry Simpson, 59; Robert Thomas, 31; Jermaine Allen, 37; and Berenices Suarez, 33. Dozens of others were injured.

DeMatteo tried Thursday to get Tyree to agree that if a building fire alarm system wasn't working, that situation would need to be immediately corrected.

"If I knew, yes," Tyree said.

DeMatteo then asked if a malfunctioning fire alarm system would put residents in a life-or-death situation. Tyree agreed that it would.

"Just like the four individuals who were at 104 Jay St.?" DeMatteo asked.

Tyree answered with a shaky "yes" before turning his face away. Judge Matthew Sypniewski then called for a break in the testimony.

On Tyree's city job application, he wrote that he had experience with "fire alarms" and carbon monoxide detectors.

Tyree previously inspected apartments at neighboring 100 Jay St. and listed that fire alarm system as functioning properly. But Tyree said another inspector accompanied him to the 100 Jay St. inspection and examined the alarm box and other fire safety details, though only Tyree's name appeared on the inspection document.

He said 104 Jay was the first large building he'd been assigned to inspect alone.

Tyree testified Wednesday that he learned he would inspect the building on March 4 and immediately expressed concern about the assignment. He repeated that concern the morning of March 5, he said.

Under questioning by DeMatteo, Tyree said he came in early as usual on March 5 but didn't ask for the 104 Jay St. file early. Tyree added that he had forgotten about it overnight.

Tyree initially told investigators he was at 104 Jay St. from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., but cameras captured images of him inspecting another house on Crane Street at noon that day.

When confronted by investigators about the timeline discrepancy in the wake of the fire, Tyree told them he could inspect an apartment in two minutes.

The 104 Jay St. complex comprised 20 apartments, 18 of them occupied.

DeMatteo asked Tyree about the "two minutes" remark, and he said it was a figure of speech. Apartment inspections, however, didn't take long, he said.

"You had never been there before, right?" DeMatteo asked. "And you were there less than two hours?"

Tyree responded he could have started before 10, but he wasn't sure.

Tyree also testified Thursday that he has needed reading glasses for years, but he didn't use them during his 104 Jay St. inspection.

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)

Previous testimony indicated the alarm panel screen would have had warning lights indicating "Alarm: FIRE" and a red "FIRE ALARM" light would have been lit, among other indicators of a non-functioning system.

Tyree said he saw no words on the screen, just green.

Another charge against Tyree concerns his failure to tell the city about his five prior convictions, dating back to the 1980s, including two felonies for filing a false instrument and burglary.

DeMatteo said that every other answer on Tyree's application was correct except that one.

The prosecutor suggested Tyree was afraid he wasn't going to get the job if the city knew of his criminal past. Tyree said his supervisor and friend Dominic Viscariello knew of his record, and that he knew he already had the job at that point.

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