A deadly fire in downtown Schenectady on March 6, destroyed two Jay Street apartment buildings, killing four people, injuring seven others and leaving over 60 people homeless. Apartments at 100-102 and 104 Jay St., across from City Hall, were the addresses that were set ablaze.
Lt. Mark McCracken of the Schenectady Police Department provided a detailed timeline of the events. He said, “On March 6, 2015, at approximately 2 a.m., the 911 center for the county received multiple calls about a fire at 104 Jay St. The fire eventually spread to 100-102 Jay St. The top two floors of both buildings collapsed into their interiors.”
All of the deceased were found inside 104 Jay St. Three out of the four bodies have been identified.
A full inspection of all 20 apartments within the complex occurred a day before the fire, on March 5. According to city building inspector Eric Schilling, there had been no code violations found at 100-102 Jay St. However, 104 Jay St. had a different owner than the other two apartments and had an expired alarm certification. According to Schilling, this does not necessarily mean that the alarm wasn’t working.
In the days after the fire, the Schenectady city counsel corporation ruled the fire an ongoing criminal investigation. When asked about the matter, Mayor Gary McCarthy stated, “You treat it as a criminal investigation until it proves otherwise.”
On the Monday after the fire, McCarthy declared a state of emergency for streets surrounding the site of the fire due to the “deterioration of those buildings, which has left them in imminent danger of collapse.”
In the weeks that followed, the Schenectady Fire Department was able to determine that the fatal fire was accidental.
On Friday, March 20, exactly two weeks after the fire, officials announced that Harry Simpson, one of the four dead, caused the accident that started the fire.
In a news conference hosted by city officials, Schenectady Fire Chief Ray Senecal stated, “The fire originated in the fourth-floor apartment C1 in an upholstered chair. The occupant, Mr. Simpson, tried to remove the chair from the apartment. The chair at that point became wedged in the hallway door.”
Because of this, the fire spread quickly throughout the apartment buildings. According to Senecal, a window was open, which helped provide the fire with oxygen. Investigators were able to uncover a lighter, cigarettes, candles and incense near the chair in Simpson’s apartment, and one of these is believed to be the source of the blaze.
Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney added, “We can believe that one of those items was lit, and was close or on top of the chaise lounge at some point, and it caught on fire.”
Regardless of Simpson’s fatal mistake, he was still able to wake up two of his neighbors, warning them of the fire and ultimately saving their lives.
The district attorney is still in the process of reviewing evidence for investigation, including Schenectady City Code Enforcement records, and refused to comment on anything other than the cause and origin of the fire at the news conference.
Authorities still do not know if everyone on the tenant lists for both apartment buildings is accounted for.
When asked how the fire was determined to be an accident and not an act of arson, McCracken stated, “The cause of the fire was determined by the Schenectady Fire Department, with a great deal of assistance from the ATF’s National Response Team. The joint investigation was able to rule out arson by examining the physical evidence, comparing it with eye-witness accounts, video evidence and eliminating other causes.” He added that eyewitnesses were extremely helpful with the investigation.
A demolition process to bring down the destroyed apartment buildings is currently underway.
McCarthy estimates that it will be “at least a year” before the city will see redevelopment of the property.
For the past few weeks, crews from Jackson Demolition have been continuously removing twisted metal, bricks and other debris from the site.
Signs are posted on a chain-link fence surrounding the demolition site warning people that the air contains asbestos.
The fire ultimately created a hole in the streetscape, bringing down one four-story and one five-story building.
The city is paying for the demolition of the buildings, which is estimated to cost up to $418,000.
On April 1, a fundraiser in Key Hall at Proctor’s Theatre raised about $19,000 to support businesses that were hurt by the fire. More than 400 people attended the event, which featured food, live music and a raffle.
Those interested in donating can visit the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp.’s website.