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FDNY Firefighter Killed Battling 5-Alarm Fire At Movie Set In Harlem

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – A firefighter was killed battling a five-alarm blaze at a building where actor Ed Norton was directing a movie late Thursday night in Harlem.

FDNY officials identified the firefighter as 37-year-old Michael R. Davidson, a 15-year department veteran.

The fire broke out around 11 p.m. Thursday in the basement of the closed St. Nick's Jazz Pub on Saint Nicholas Avenue near 148th Street.

"It started in the basement and it shot through the roof," said neighbor Scott Raynor. "It looked like a volcano."

FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said Davidson was assigned to the nozzle, responsible for operating a hoseline to suppress the fire. But the flames were so intense, that crews were forced to get out.

"Somehow while backing out of that building, Firefighter Davidson was separated from the rest of the unit," Nigro said at Harlem Hospital. "Members tried desperately to find Firefighter Davidson. When they did, he was unconscious. Despite the best efforts of the members, members of our firefighting forces, EMS and here at the hospital, they were unable to revive Michael and he perished."

Sugar hill fire by Douglas Miller on YouTube

Mayor Bill de Blasio was in Florida on a personal trip when Davidson was killed, but returned to the city to grieve with Davidson's family and fellow firefighters.

"Our city lost a hero tonight," de Blasio wrote on Twitter early Friday morning. He ordered flags to fly at half-staff in Davidson's honor.

The building, built in 1920, was being used as a set for the movie "Motherless Brooklyn," which takes place in the 1950s. It stars Norton, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe and Alec Baldwin.

The crew had just wrapped a scene at the former St. Nick's Jazz Pub, which is located in the basement, when the fire began. Ambroise Ironfence is a background actor.

"Smoke started coming from the ceiling," he said. "Nothing was happening. We weren't doing a special effect, we're not using fire. All the equipment we were using, the power was coming from the truck outside."

The production crew had hundreds of feet of power cables on the block, some of it now surrounded by crime scene tape, as investigators used a bucket lift Friday to get a closer view of the burned out building.

"The brave men dragged me out in that smoke -- we were literately choking with smoke. It was overwhelming," second floor resident Spellman Beaubrun told CBS2's Tony Aiello. "My beautiful home -- That had to succumb to this and to hear one of the firemen didn't make it, is heartbreaking. My heart goes out to his family and all the members of the FDNY." 

Two other firefighters were hurt, one seriously. Three other civilians were also injured.

Fire officials said basement fires are some of the most dangerous for crews.

"Going down to a cellar to fight a fire is one of the most dangerous this members do," Nigro said. "Fire in a building that was built in 1920, it's a non-fire proof building. Fire spreads rather rapidly and this fire did."

At the scene, someone hung a t-shirt as a show of support and Cameron Hunt put up a notice thanking firefighters for risking their lives.

"We don't realize how valuable these people are in our lives," Hunt said.

With classic cars on the street and movie stars their midst, residents had welcomed the visit from Hollywood to Harlem.

"They've been really cool with everybody. It's been exciting to see Bruce Willis, to see Edward Norton," resident Mark DeMaio told CBS2's Tony Aiello. "Then, this tragedy happens."

"The amount of bravery it takes to run into a fire when everyone is running the other way, it's overwhelming," he added. "I don't know where it comes from. They're a special breed."

The producers of "Motherless Brooklyn" released a statement:

Our deepest condolences to the family of Michael R. Davidson. A fire broke out tonight in the building where we were shooting our film. Our production was towards the end of our working day and had dozens of people working on site, when our crew noticed that smoke was coming into our set and into other parts of the building from below us. As soon as we noticed smoke coming up into our set, our crew immediately alerted the fire department and began alerting residents of the building even as we evacuated our cast and crew. To our great sorrow, we now know that a NYC firefighter lost his life battling the blaze that grew, and our hearts ache in solidarity with his family. New York City firefighters truly are the bravest in the world. 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 FDNY are real life super-heroes and have our boundless admiration and gratitude.

The cause of the fire is under investigation. The city has ordered the building to be demolished, saying it's unstable and cannot be saved.

Davidson was a married father of four young children between the ages of 1 and 7. His father was retired from the same firehouse and his brother is a firefighter in the Bronx.

"Our entire department, our entire city, mourns this horrific loss of a very brave firefighter," Nigro said. "Our hearts and our prayers go out to the family and may God rest his soul."

The FDNY say Davidson is the 1,150th member die in the department's history. His death comes on the heels of the death of FDNY Lt. Christopher Raguso and Fire Marshal Christopher "Tripp" Zanetis, who were killed in a helicopter crash while serving as part of the Air National Guard in Iraq.

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