Firefighter Michael Davidson thought he was going in to confront a small basement fire, not knowing that flames were raging behind the fake walls of a movie set in the Harlem building, a new FDNY investigation found.
Davidson, of Floral Park, went downstairs to the cellar and was spraying water on flames when the fire broke through the fake plywood walls on the floor above him, according to the 117-page report on his death released Monday.
The cellar was the lowest floor of the building. The movie set was located in the first floor/basement above it.
In the thick, toxic smoke, Davidson got separated from his fellow firefighters and his air tank ran out. The 37-year-old firefighter and father of four could not make his way out of the building and succumbed to smoke inhalation, the report said.
The report on the March 22, 2018, fire determined that the movie-set alterations made to the building’s interior had a "detrimental effect on fire operations." The building had been converted into a set for the movie “Motherless Brooklyn,” starring Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis and Edward Norton, who was also directing the production.
“The movie production placed highly combustible materials on the walls throughout the first floor,” the report said. “These movie walls created voids which initially concealed fire. The first units were unaware that these false walls were not intrinsic to the fire building.”
The movie production company, Class 5 Films Inc., declined to comment Thursday. No criminal charges have been filed against the film company or the landlord.
The report offered a view inside the fast-paced, at times harried, efforts to quell the fire. Problems with communication, made worse by the chaos of a close-up battle against the blaze, hampered efforts, the report said.
When Davidson’s unit, Engine 69 based in Upper Manhattan, arrived on the scene at about 10:50 p.m., he carried the nozzle of the first fire hose into the building. At the time, firefighters thought they were confronting a small fire, the report said.
Davidson carried the nozzle down the cellar stairs, the report said. Fire officials later determined that the blaze started in the cellar when heat from a defective boiler ventilation flue pipe ignited nearby materials.
At 11:16 p.m., the extent of the blaze became known.
“Fire burning between the first floor wall and the movie prop wall now became visible out the rear first floor double window,” the report said. “This was not apparent to units operating in the cellar, first floor or in front as the movie prop wall blocked the double window.”
At 11:17 p.m., Davidson radioed to his fellow firefighters that the air in his tank was gone and he needed to get out. Shortly thereafter the fire suddenly spread through the movie set walls, the report said.
The movie set included highly flammable Art Deco panels, which created a toxic smoke. There was also plywood framing covered with polyurethane foam, which also caused dense, black smoke, the report said.
Fire officials ordered all personnel out of the building, which was eventually engulfed by the fire.
Davidson, inhaling the thick smoke, made it upward as far as the first floor/basement level. He clicked the talk button on his radio at 11:19 p.m. but said nothing, the report said.
At 11:21 p.m., another firefighter radioed that he had heard a call for mayday. Investigators were unable to determine whether Davidson transmitted a mayday, the report said.
At 11:26 p.m., the officers of Engine Company 69 and Ladder Company 28 concluded that Davidson was not out of the building.
"MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY," a ladder company officer radioed. "We're missing 69's nozzleman, Mikey Davidson. MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY."
At 11:38 p.m., a firefighter crawled across the top of the movie set bar and spotted Davidson, prone and unresponsive by the bar, the report said.
He was taken to Harlem Hospital, where, shortly after midnight, he was pronounced dead.
Davidson's widow, Eileen, declined to comment Thursday on the report.
Davidson's funeral drew thousands of fellow firefighters in their dress uniforms, along with top city and FDNY officials, to St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan. He was posthumously promoted to lieutenant.
The report discussed 32 findings from the investigation and offered recommendations on them.
For example, the report recommended that the communications manual be amended to say that a firefighter transmitting a mayday message should first depress their Emergency Alert Button. Davidson did not activate his EAB, the report said.
Also, confusion was created when some firefighters referred to the cellar, which was the lowest area in the building, as the basement, which was actually above it. The report recommended clarifying these terms.
In addition, there had been no notification to the fire department that a movie was being shot in the building, the report said.
The report recommended that a system of notification for such changes be established between the fire department and the Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting. Also, the city should explore ways to increase safety at film production locations, such as alerting the fire department when the production is using highly combustible materials.
1. Firefighter Michael Davidson was unaware of the rapidly deteriorating conditions due to the spread of the fire.
2. He died of smoke inhalation.
2. Davidson's air tank had run out of air.
3. The fire was caused by a malfunction in the boiler vent.
4. The movie set, including fake walls and highly combustible materials, hampered the firefighters.