Teens get prison terms for role in fatal 2020 fire

Niagara Falls firefighters were called July 6, 2020, to battle a large blaze that spread to three buildings in the 1800 block of Niagara Street. All three buildings are slated for demolition on Tuesday.

LOCKPORT — Two Falls teenagers who pleaded guilty to charges connected to their roles in a fatal arson fire, ignited by the illegal use of fireworks, will now spend sometime behind bars.

Niagara County Court Judge Matthew J. Murphy III sentenced Zachary Preisch, 19, to a term of between 1 1/3 to 4 years for his guilty plea to a charge of criminally negligent homicide in the fatal arson. Preisch was also sentenced to 5 years in prison, to be served concurrently, for his guilty plea to two counts of attempted second-degree criminal possession of a weapon in connection with two unrelated shooting incidents.

Murphy sentenced Damion Ellis, 19, to a term of imprisonment of between 1 to 3 years for his guilty plea to a single count of second-degree manslaughter in the arson incident. 

Each teen had originally been charged with single counts of second-degree murder and single counts of first-degree arson. Murphy declined to grant either Preisch or Ellis youthful offender status.

The teens admitted that they had been setting off fireworks in the vacant lower apartment of 1815 Niagara St. on July 6, 2020. One of the fireworks landed on a couch that had been left in the apartment.

Fire investigators determined that the firework smoldered in the couch for between 15 and 20 minutes before exploding into flames. The resulting fire, described at the time as a “roaring inferno”, destroyed three structures in the 1800 block of Niagara Street and took the life of Ward Schaal, 52, who lived in the second floor apartment of the home where the fire started.

Fire officials said the first call for the blaze came in at around 11:45 p.m. and when firefighters arrived on the scene, they found the two-and-a-half-story, wood-frame home where Schaal lived, “fully engulfed in flames.”

“The flames were so intense, we couldn’t get into the home to check (for anyone who might have been trapped),” Falls Fire Chief Joe Pedulla said at the time.

Pedulla said firefighting crews were on the scene of the blaze within 90 seconds of the call coming in to dispatchers. He said the spread of the fire and the speed with which it spread made the blaze tough to battle.

As the firefighters tried to control the flames, the fire began to spread to two nearby structures. Another two-and-a-half story, wood-frame dwelling and a commercial building, with upstairs apartments, were also set ablaze.

The fire chief said it took firefighters more than an hour to gain control of the flames. More than three hours after they arrived, fire crews were finally able to enter Schaal’s apartment, but could not locate him.

“By the time we were able to get inside, the roof had collapsed (into the home),” Pedulla said. “We moved as much (debris) as we could by hand.”

When demolition contractors arrived on the scene, the next day, they were able to remove “heavy roof debris” and firefighters made the grim discovery of human remains.

“The body was found at the rear of the second floor,” Pedulla said. “We know (Schaal) lived on the second floor, and stayed up front. The fire may have driven him to the back and he was trying to get out the back of the house.”

In taking their pleas, Ellis admitted that he set off the fireworks that sparked the blaze. Preisch said he did nothing to stop the fire from igniting.

A little more than two weeks prior to the fatal blaze, a nearby commercial building was also set on fire by the careless use of fireworks. That fire caused relatively minor damage.

The unrelated weapons charges against Preisch stemmed from a shooting in the 300 block of 77th Street on May 29, 2020 and a shooting incident in the 2400 block of South Avenue on April 26. No one was injured in either of the shootings.

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