The fire that killed a Buffalo firefighter Wednesday might have been sparked by crews working on the Main Street building without permits.
A review of city records by Investigative Post found no active permits for work at 743 Main St., which was recently purchased by a company owned by former Congressman Chris Jacobs. Michael DeGeorge, spokesman for Mayor Byron Brown, confirmed that the city’s Department of Permits and Inspection Services had “no active or valid permits” on file.
The most recent work permit the city issued for 743 Main Street was last April, for emergency repairs to the three-storey building’s exterior masonry. That permit expired in October.
Jacobs, who before his tenure in Congress served as Erie County clerk, closed his purchase of the property in December. No permits have been issued since.
Jacobs did not initially reply to a request for comment. Twenty minutes after we published this story, he texted Investigative Post a statement:
“At this time all of my thoughts are with the firefighter and his family and the members of the Buffalo fire department as well as all the emergency responders. I think it’s important that Officials should do their investigation and once we have more information, then I believe it would be appropriate to comment further.”
Last year’s work permit was issued to Morris Masonry Restoration. A spokesman for the Niagara Falls company told Investigative Post his workers repaired crumbling brickwork that posed a danger to pedestrians, under contract with the previous owner. He said the company completed that work last year, under the permit issued by the city, and has not worked on the building since.
The previous owner of the property was Nathan Associates, LLC, whose principal is Ashok Kapoor of East Amherst. Nathan Associates bought the property in 2003 for $350,000, according to city records.
Between 2017 and 2021, city inspectors cited Nathan Associates nine times for exterior issues — crumbling brickwork, rotting door and window frames, etc. Twice inspectors followed up, insisting the owner provide work plans to address the issues cited in previous inspection reports or face legal action.
The most recent such follow-up was issued July 1, 2021:
“THIS OFFICE HAS RECIEVED ANOTHER COMPLAINT REGARDING THIS PROPERTY 6/30/21 . YOU MUST SUBMIT A LETTER OF INTENT WITHIN 10 DAYS OR COURT TO FOLLOW … REPAIR ALL VIOLATION CITIED ON 3/12/20 [sic].”
Last February, the property landed in Buffalo Housing Court. Two months later, Morris Masonry Restoration pulled a permit to do exterior repairs.
Jacobs purchased the property in December for a reported $1.3 million. It was the sixth building the sometime real estate developer, sometime elected official purchased on the 700 block of Main, between Tupper and Goodell streets.
Buffalo Rising reported that “[w]ork crews have been seen gutting the building in recent weeks.”
Fire investigators continue to probe the origin of the conflagration, which began around 10 a.m. Wednesday. In a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Buffalo Fire Commissioner William Renaldo suggested the fire might have been caused by workers who were using a blowtorch on the exterior masonry of the building.
“Workers working on the exterior of the building … we think that may have been the cause,” Renaldo said.
“We do believe that the fire from the torches transferred through that wall somehow, and to the fuel that was on the opposite side of that wall.”
Firefighter Jason Arno, 37, died in the four-alarm blaze. Arno — who was assigned to Engine 2, in the firehouse at the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Virginia Street — was among the first firefighters to enter the building. They were soon forced to retreat by the collapse of the building’s north wall. Arno did not make it out.
Personal injury attorney Chris O’Brien of the law firm O’Brien and Ford told Investigative Post that state law permits a firefighter who is injured on duty — or, if killed, the firefighter’s estate — to sue a building owner or contractor, “when there has been a failure to comply with local statutes or regulation.”
“If it’s a situation where there should have been a permit, and they did not get the proper permit, there may be responsibility on the part of the owner,” O’Brien said.
City officials said Wednesday an emergency demolition permit would be issued quickly, so the remains of the gutted structure can be pulled down.