Michael Davidson is the New York Fire Department lieutenant who was killed during the filming of Ed Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn” in Harlem. The broke out on March 22 in the cellar of the building, where the filming production office was set up. Davidson, a native of Long Island, was promoted to lieutenant posthumously.
Lt. Davidson had spent his entire time with the FDNY as part of Engine 69 Ladder 29. Davidson’s father is a veteran of the FDNY and also served Engine 69. Davidson’s brother is still an active firefighter with the FDNY. The building was located at 773 St. Nicholas Avenue close to 149th Street. The building was later demolished.
The fire resulted in the filming of the movie being halted for a week. As a result of Davidson’s death, his widow, Eileen Davidson, brought a lawsuit against Ed Norton’s production company in 2019. Eileen Davidson is being represented by Vito Cannavo in the lawsuit.
In turn, Norton’s company is suing the building’s landlord, Vincent Sollazzo. A couple who lived in the building is also suing Class 5 productions alleging that, “When representatives of Class 5, Inc. became aware of the fire, they did not warn tenants in the building; in fact, they misled the tenants into believing there had been a fire that had been extinguished.” That lawsuit also accuses the building’s landlord of being “reckless, careless and negligent” in his maintenance of the building.
In addition to his wife, Davidson is survived by his four children.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Michael Davidson’s Cause of Death Was Asphyxiation Caused by Smoke Inhalation
Davidson’s official cause of death was given as asphyxiation caused by smoke inhalation, according to the New York City medical examiner. The U.S. Fire Administration says that Davidson and his crew were dispatched to the filming location due to a fire caused by heat coming from a boiler ventilation pipe and “spread in concealed spaces and materials installed in the structure for use in movie production.”
The administration says that Davidson was in the basement of the building fighting the fire when the air supply ran out. As Davidson went to exit the basement, he was separated from his unit and became disorientated and collapsed. It took rescue workers 12 minutes to locate Davidson amid the smoke and bring him out of the basement. Davidson was rushed to a local hospital but did not survive.
It has been reported by multiple sources that Davidson’s death was accelerated by communication issues between firefighters and materials from the movie set.
2. An Investigator Into Davidson’s Death Is Suing the FDNY, Saying There Is a Cover-Up Surrounding Davidson’s Death
Fire marshal Scott Specht told the New York Daily News in October 2019 that had launched a lawsuit after he said he was retaliated against by the department for refusing to sign off on the official report on Davidson’s death. Specht said that he was coerced into signing off on the boiler heat story despite the alterations made to the building by the movie production and the intense lighting being used. Specht told the Daily News that he wanted the ATF to come in and take over the investigation.
It has been reported that the Davidson sprayed water against a fake wall, not realizing it was fake and had been set up for the movie. When that wall collapsed, Davidson and his crew realized the full enormity of the blaze. A report into the fire read in part, “The movie production placed highly combustible materials on the walls throughout the first floor. These movie set walls created voids which initially concealed fire.”
Eileen Davidson’s lawyer told the New York Daily News regarding the fake wall, “We agree that that movie set disguised the extent of the fire and disguised the true involvement of the premises which led these firefighters to be unaware that the fire was more involved. Michael Davidson got trapped because the conditions had deteriorated to a greater degree than the firefighters anticipated.”
3. A Few Days Before the Release of ‘Motherless Brooklyn,’ the Playground Where Davidson Played as a Boy Was Renamed in His Honor
Davidson’s wake was held in Floral Park, New York, where he lived with his family. One of Davidson’s neighbors, Peggy Healy, told NBC New York, “He was such a kind man, such a kind man.” While other neighbors said that Davidson could regularly be seen picking his kids up at a neighborhood bus stop.
A few days before the release of “Motherless Brooklyn,” a playground in Queens, Phipps Playground, was renamed for Davidson, reports CBS New York. In a statement regarding the naming, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer told the media, “Restoring the former Phipps Playground, where Lt. Davidson played as a boy and renaming it in his honor will be a fitting tribute to his beloved family and his legacy of bravery.”
A plaque has also been erected at Davidson’s firehouse in his honor. At that unveiling, Eileen Davidson said of her late husband, “He was the captain of our ship, hero of our life, the anchor of my soul.”
4. Ed Norton Has Paid Tribute to Davidson Calling Him a ‘True New York Hero’
The movie closed the 2019 New York Film Festival. After the screening, Ed Norton delivered a speech to the audience. Vanity Fair reports that Norton said in part, “Michael Davidson has a wife and four children and he put his life on the line to take care of other people. That is a true New York hero.”
FDNY Captain Daniel Kudlak said at Davidson’s wake, “From day one, he was a rock. He was the real deal.” Davidson’s funeral was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.
Ed Norton praised the FDNY in an Instagram post shortly after the fire. Norton credited the department’s quick thinking in deal with the blaze. Norton said, “I have never witnessed firsthand that kind of bravery. I’m in awe of that kind of selfless courage. It’s devastating to contemplate that one of the men we watched charging in there lost his life. Please send a prayer of thanks for the spirit and courage of Michael Davidson.”
5. A Man Left Homeless by the Fire Says That He Still Often Thinks of Davidson, His Widow & the Children He Left Behind
One man who lived in the building, Spelman Beaubrun, was left homeless as a result of the fire. In an interview with New York One in April 2018, Beaubrun thanked firefighters for saving his life. Beaubrun said, “I’m standing here today because of the firemen who braved the smoke and dragged me out of the building. And now to hear that one of them didn’t make it, it hurts.” Beaubrun said of Davidson’s family, “You put yourself in the position of these kids that will be growing up without a father. It’s heartbreaking.”
Gerard Fitzgerald, the President of The Uniformed Firefighter Association of Greater New York, told New York One in October 2019 that 18 months on from Davidson’s death, film permits are still being issued for buildings that are not up to fire code.