THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
NEW YORK — A New York City firefighter died early Friday after he became separated from his unit as they battled a fierce, smoky blaze that broke out in the cellar of a former Harlem jazz club being used as a film set.
The fire started as the crew of “Motherless Brooklyn,” directed by Edward Norton, was nearing the end of its working day at 11 p.m. Thursday. Flames poured out the windows as firefighters stormed into the five-story building, dumping water on the blaze to get it under control.
Firefighter Michael R. Davidson of Engine Company 69 was assigned to the nozzle on the lead hose-line and pushed into the burning basement. But the blaze was too much and they had to back out, and Davidson was lost from his colleagues. Firefighters searched desperately for him, and when he was found he was unconscious after suffering severe smoke inhalation, fire officials said, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. Davidson was pronounced dead at a hospital shortly after midnight.
“This is an awful night,” Eric Philips, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said in a tweet. “You haven’t heard a scream until you’ve heard the scream of a mother who’s seen her son give his life to protect us.”
The cause of the five-alarm fire was under investigation. The building, built in 1920, is a landmark and was home to the former St. Nick’s Jazz Pub, a venerable bar that was closed in 2011.
Neighbour Joan Adams said when she looked outside after smelling smoke, trucks were already on scene.
“You could see smoke billowing out of what would’ve been the basement,” she said. It was white smoke, then after a while, thick black smoke was billowing out of here.”
The building was being used to film the adaptation of the Jonathan Lethem novel of the same name. Norton was directing and starring, along with Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe and Alec Baldwin.
Neighbourhood resident Daquan Evans, 28, told the New York Post he saw Norton at the scene, and he looked shaken.
“That actor Ed Norton walked right by. He looked pretty upset,” Evans said. “This is crazy, this fire. You think a movie comes up here and it is good for the neighbourhood. Not a fire … damn.”
Two other firefighters suffered burns and were in serious condition, and three others were injured, Nigro said.
“Our department and our entire city mourn this tragic loss of a very brave firefighter,” Nigro said.
Producers sent condolences to the family of the firefighter in a statement. They said crews immediately called the fire department when they noticed smoke coming into the set and other parts of the building.
“We watched firsthand with astonishment as they charged into the smoke to make sure all were safely out and then fought to contain the blaze and prevent it from spreading, putting their lives on the line as they do every day,” the statement read.
Neighbours said the movie crew had set up a sign that read “King Rooster Jazz Club” about two weeks ago. Cars from the 1950s era lined the street.
“They started building the set two weeks ago and have been here every day,” Nathan Monroe-Yavneh, a neighbour, told the Daily News of New York.
Douglas Miller, 35, who lives across the street in a second-floor apartment, said the fire travelled fast and went all the way to the roof. He saw firefighters carry out one of their own, on a stretcher, and try to resuscitate him and give him oxygen.
“They tried to save him, but they couldn’t,” Miller said, and soon the firefighter was being rushed to a hospital.
Davidson had been a firefighter about 15 years and had been cited four times for his bravery on the job. He leaves behind a wife, Eileen, and four children, three daughters aged 7, 3, and 1, along with a 6-year-old son. He was the son of retired firefighter Robert Davidson.
A Pennsylvania fire department suffered tragedy this week when two firefighters were fatally injured in the partial collapse of a former piano factory in York.