Sep 27


Lawsuits have commenced in blaze that killed firefighter

The development company owned by Chris Jacobs has sued the contractor blamed for starting a fire at his building that claimed the life of Jason Arno in March.

The owner of 743 Main Street — the site of the fire that killed Buffalo firefighter Jason Arno in March — is suing the contractor that investigators blame for starting the blaze.

The plaintiff is 743 Main Street LLC, a limited liability company with the same address as Avalon Development, former U.S. Rep. Chris Jacobs’ development company. Jacobs used the LLC to purchase the building in December 2022 for $1.3 million. 

The defendant is JP Contracting of WNY, whose workers used a propane roofing torch and a leaf blower to melt ice on the exterior masonry of the building the morning of the fire, according to a federal investigation.

The plaintiff and defendant are both located at 701 Seneca Street in Larkinville — the building’s owner in Suite 200, the contractor in Suite 202. The proximity of the two companies raises a question as to whether they share owners.

Federal investigators concluded in July that the heat and flame from the torch, accelerated by the leaf blower, ignited flammable materials — including “bags of clothing” and “costumes in plastic bags”  — just inside a door on the building’s north side, where JP Contracting’s employees were working. 

The door, which accessed the DC Theatricks costume shop, was boarded up with plywood. The workers used a metal shovel “to shield the plywood from the torch,” according to a report by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which led a multi-agency inquiry into the cause of the fire. 

“The fire pattern on the inside surface of the plywood would have been caused by a fire originating in the materials on the east side of the doorway and quickly spreading upward,” according to the ATF report.

The lawsuit repeats that conclusion, alleging that “the torch used by JP ignited combustible materials on the interior of the building,” and “the leaf blower accelerated the flames through the interior of the building.”

The lawsuit affirms that 743 Main Street LLC — the Jacobs company — acquired the building on Dec. 15, 2022 and hired JP Contracting “to perform a variety of work on the property, including masonry repairs.” 

An earthquake on February 6 “shook exterior bricks loose on the building,” according to the lawsuit, and JP Contracting was enlisted to repair the damage and “to address plumbing issues.”

At the time of the fire, Investigative Post reported that the contractors working on the building the day of the fire had no valid work permits. We also reported that the previous property owner had been cited by city inspectors nine times for crumbling brickwork, rotting door and window frames, and other issues with the building’s exterior.

The lawsuit claims that JP Contracting’s workers “were in the Property on multiple occasions prior to February 28,” and thus “knew or should have known” that its use of an open flame to melt ice in the brickwork “caused a dangerous and hazardous condition within the subject property.”

The ATF report released in July ruled the fire an accident, but described in detail — based on testimony and video evidence — how the workers’ use of the torch and leaf blower sparked the blaze. Erie County District Attorney John Flynn declined to pursue criminal charges against Jacobs, associated corporate entities, or the contractor, describing the workers’ actions as “stupid … but not criminal.

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A JP Contracting employee was the first to realize the building had caught fire and to call 911, according to the ATF report. Nonetheless, the lawsuit alleges, the contractor’s workers “did not act in time to prevent the fire inside the building from spreading and causing the entire building to catch fire.”

A JP Contracting worker called 911 to report the fire at 9:55 a.m., according to the ATF investigation, and firefighters arrived on the scene three minutes later. Arno, the firefighter who died in the blaze, was among the first to enter the structure. He was caught in a backdraft at 10:07 a.m. and immediately sent a “mayday” signal indicating he was trapped, according to the report. 

Rescuers reached Arno 10 minutes later, but a second backdraft prevented them from pulling him out of the building. His body was recovered three and half hours later.

Jennifer Pasternack, who is listed in city records as the license holder for JP Contracting, did not respond to a phone call requesting comment.

Attorney Paul Joyce of the law firm Colucci & Gallaher, who represents the building owner, declined to comment “beyond what is in the amended complaint.” 

The owner has filed a claim with the contractor’s insurer but is also seeking unspecified damages incurred by the loss of the building, as well as attorney’s fees. 

The property’s assessed value for tax purposes was $845,000 at the time of the fire, according to city records — $196,000 for the land, the rest for the now-demolished structure. 

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The City of Buffalo paid $274,000 on May 11 to Empire Dismantlement for the demolition. Michael DeGeorge, spokesperson for Mayor Byron Brown, told Investigative Post in June that 743 Main Street LLC “is assuming all responsibilities for the cost incurred for the demolition.” 

In July, DeGeorge told Investigative Post the company had reimbursed the city, but did not respond when asked precisely how much the company had paid.

Arno’s widow filed a notice of claim against the City of Buffalo and the fire department in April, alleging that Arno’s death was the result of inadequate training, failure to provide and maintain adequate equipment and gear, and disregard for “proper mayday, bailout, evacuation and/or man down procedures.”

The widow, Sarah Elizabeth L. Tierney, has not yet filed a lawsuit. 

Her attorney, Charles Desmond of the firm Gibson, McAskill & Crosby, told Investigative Post in July that his client was considering a claim against the building’s owner and its contractors, as well. Desmond declined to comment on this lawsuit.

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