Fatal Motherless Brooklyn Fire Offers Hard Lessons For Film Productions

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A year after a fire burned a Harlem brownstone used for production of the Edward Norton-directed Motherless Brooklyn, the New York City Fire Department has issued a detailed report that breaks down the cause of events. It points to some shocking lapses that contributed to the death of firefighter Michael Davidson.

While multiple lawsuits against the city and Nortons production company are pending, the report serves as a cautionary tale worth absorbing by anyone who engages in location shoots for movies and TV shows.

Most shocking, per the report, is that Davidson and his fellow firefighters were unaware of the movie set alterations that converted the buildings interior into a set for the film that stars Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis and Norton. So while Davidson went downstairs to the cellar and sprayed water on the walls, he didnt initially realize that this was a façade. When the enormity of the blaze became clear and the real fire burned through, the firefighter was separated from his team in the thick, toxic smoke and his oxygen tank emptied before he could escape.

Motherless Brooklyn
Norton and Willis on “Motherless Brooklyn” set Shutterstock

In addition, alterations to the movie set included placing highly combustible material on the walls throughout the first floor. Finally, the report flagged the fact that filmmakers and the Mayors Office of Media and Entertainment, which issues shooting permits, arent obligated to notify the fire department about planned shoots. All of these issues contributed to a tragedy that perhaps could have been averted.

On Thursday, FDNY issued its official report on the accident, which was covered by local media outlets including Newsday and the New York Daily News.

“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.”

Motherless Brooklyn fire report FDNY
New York City Hall Paul Brown/Shutterstock

Davidson, 37, became disoriented and used up his entire oxygen tank, succumbing to smoke inhalation. Materials used for the set of the period piece, including Art Deco panels, ignited quickly and released thick, dark smoke.

The mayors office told Deadline in a statement that it “works on a daily basis with the FDNY to ensure safety on film sets.” The statement added, “We are coordinating with the FDNY to enhance our permitting questionnaire to ensure that the FDNY will have adequate information about proposed filming activity to determine if there are fire safety concerns.”

Edward Nortons Class 5 Productions and the city have been named as defendants in a lawsuit by Eileen Davidson, the firefighters widow and mother of their four children. The suit is among three such complaints that allege the production disguised the true extent of the fire, with the city not having sufficient oversight. Earlier this month, a state court blocked an attempt by attorneys for Class 5 to have Davidsons suit dismissed.

Attorneys for Davidson and for Class 5 did not immediately respond to Deadlines request for comment on the FDNY report.

Michael Davidson Rex/Shutterstock

Davidson was mourned last March by thousands of firefighters and others in a funeral service at St. Patricks Cathedral and a procession through the city.

The cause of the fire is in dispute. The FDNY originally determined that it was caused by a busted boiler that ignited nearby flammable objects, making the buildings owner responsible, not the film crew. But in a surprising twist, Fire Marshal Scott Specht – the lead investigator of the blaze – claims that the FDNY enRead More – Source

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