The investigation of a Harlem building blaze that killed a firefighter and disrupted production of a movie starring Edward Norton was rigged so Norton’s production company — which was using the building for filming — would escape blame, an FDNY fire marshal claims.
Fire Marshal Scott Specht, the lead investigator in the fire, accuses Chief Fire Marshal Thomas Kane, his deputy J.D. Lynn and FDNY Assistant Commissioner Carlos Velez of retaliating against him for reporting an alleged cover-up to the city Department of Investigation, according to a notice of claim obtained Friday by the Daily News.
Specht, who served in Iraq as a helicopter pilot for the National Guard, declined to speak with a Daily News reporter citing FDNY regulations.
But his lawyer Peter Gleason called the fire marshal’s treatment “deplorable and disgusting.”
“Specht, a combat veteran, doesn’t think twice about flying his Black Hawk into harm’s way and will never be intimidated by a few…bureaucrats who want to besmirch the legacy of a fallen comrade while protecting a pack of Hollywood phonies,” Gleason said.
The claims center around the probe of a March 22 fire and collapse on St. Nicholas Ave. which broke out during the filming of the crime thriller “Motherless Brooklyn,” which has an all-star cast including Norton, who also directed, Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis and Alec Baldwin.
Firefighter Michael Davidson, 37, was overcome with fumes and died.
In April, the FDNY said the deadly blaze was caused by heat from a boiler ventilation pipe in the basement that ignited nearby combustible materials, indirectly laying responsibility at the feet of the building’s owner, Vincent Lampkin.
Internally, sources said Specht, as lead investigator, sharply disagreed with that assessment and refused to sign off on that ruling.
In the notice, Specht states that his investigation found clear evidence that Norton’s movie company, Class 5 Films, illegally tampered with the building’s electrical system and that wood screws installed by the movie crew literally pierced electrical wires.
He arrived at this conclusion based on a series of observations he made during weeks at the fire scene, the notice said.
After crews were able to dig through five stories of rubble, he found that the boiler and its cinder block encasement were entirely intact. A two-by-four at the base of the boiler was undamaged by fire, as was a plastic bag hanging off the boiler.
John Knox, 82, a retired fire marshal who served 34 years and investigated thousands of fires, including the Fraunces Tavern bombing in 1975, viewed photos of the boiler obtained by The News from FDNY sources.
“If there was any substantial fire in that area it would have taken the gloves. They wouldn’t be there,” Knox said. “Instead they are just hanging on the boiler. And the wood would have been charred. There would have been some damage to the wood, and there isn’t.”
Specht also determined that the movie company overloaded the building with combustible, oil-based set material, and hundreds of feet of electrical cable.
According to an email sent by Specht to scores of other fire marshals and obtained independently by The News, he also found an electrical outlet damaged by the production company, which he said was evidence the company was illegally tapping in to the building electrical system and cables running under the self-closing door to the boiler room so it couldn’t shut. In the email, he said the cause should remain undetermined until a more thorough investigation can take place.
“There is no doubt in the professional opinion of (Specht) that Edward Norton’s movie production company was the precipitating cause of the fire that caused the death of Firefighter Davidson,” the notice of claim says.
“The underbelly of this tragic situation is the extent that Lynn, Kane and Velez will go in the continuation of the coverup of the death of Davidson.”
The FDNY official said Specht initially agreed with the boiler flue’s role, and then changed his mind and alleged Gleason and Knox have an axe to grind with the FDNY’s Lynn.
The notice of claim goes on to allege that the Bureau of Fire Investigation unfairly blamed a “poor African-American from Harlem” — Lampkin — for causing the fire, while relieving the movie company of real scrutiny.
Specht’s email also noted that the owner installed a circuit breaker panel himself which could be illegal, evidence indicating the owner did electrical repair to the boiler the day before the fire and wiring in states of disrepair.
“(The building) stood since at least 1920 and to my knowledge there was never a fire incident,” Lampkin’s lawyer Geovanny Fernandez said. “Additionally, there was significant electric usage at the site, particularly at the time of the fire when the final scenes for the location were being filmed, and to my knowledge no permits were requested.”
Fernandez said as he recalled after the FDNY released the site in April 2018, 10 former fire marshals representing the various parties conducted a walk-through and nine of 10 ruled out the boiler. The tenth only said he could not rule it out.
Marvin Putnam, an attorney for Class V films, called the allegations “reckless and untrue.”
“Out of respect for those involved, and to allow the FDNY to conduct a thorough investigation, Class 5 and Edward Norton have stayed silent,” he said. “These allegations have insinuated that the production caused the fire and accused the FDNY of engaging in a cover-up to protect some unnamed Hollywood elites — all to generate attention-grabbing press coverage. This muckraking ignores a tragic reality — these are real people who have been unfairly and wrongfully accused of causing a firefighter’s tragic death.”
Putnam said Class V in no way caused Davidson’s death. The company complied with the law, permits were obtained, and the city was aware of what they were doing. He denied the company tapped into electrical lines or used combustible material.
“The fact the building’s sprinkler system was not properly working (was) a terrible reality that had nothing to do with the production or filming,” he said. “We have every confidence that all of this will be confirmed after the investigation concludes.”
Specht claims in the court papers that Kane and Lynn retaliated against him for refusing to bow to pressure to sign off on the boiler finding and subsequently reporting his allegations to the city Department of Investigation.
He also claims Velez blocked his retirement illegally, supposedly based on an internal investigation. But Specht has never been told what he’s being investigated for, Gleason said.
Meanwhile, Kane, Lynn and Velez allegedly pulled Specht off of investigations and placed him indefinitely on desk duty without his gun or shield along with five other marshals without giving a reason, Gleason said.
FDNY sources claim Lynn and Kane relentlessly pressured Specht to agree the boiler was the cause.
Lynn also rejected an offer from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to send the boiler to a lab for testing, according to the notice of claim. The FDNY also has yet to request a copy of the ATF’s electrical engineering report, the claim states.
Specht does not make a monetary demand in the notice, but wants the investigation transferred to the ATF for an independent probe.
An FDNY spokesman said it does not comment on pending litigation. Kane and Lynn did not immediately respond for comment, and Velez could not be reached by The News.