NEW YORK — As mourners prepare to gather Tuesday to pay final respects to a New York City firefighter who died battling a fire in Harlem, officials said the cause of the blaze remains a mystery and that the fire-ravaged…
The firefighter, Michael R. Davidson, of Engine Co. 69, was overcome by smoke as the fast-moving fire tore through the building at 773 St. Nicholas Ave. on Thursday night.
He became separated from his unit as the flames intensified, and he was found unconscious by other firefighters; he was pronounced dead at Harlem Hospital Center early Friday morning.
On Tuesday morning, thousands of firefighters are expected to gather at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue for the funeral Mass, which is to be said by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan.
On Long Island, the wake for the fallen firefighter, who was promoted posthumously to lieutenant, continued Monday, with Mayor Bill de Blasio joining those who turned out to pay their respects.
Hundreds of firefighters in navy uniforms and mourners in dark suits and dresses wrapped around the Thomas F. Dalton Funeral Home in Floral Park, the Nassau County village where Davidson, 37, lived with his wife and their four young children. The flags around the village hung at half-staff, and oak trees around the neighborhoods of two-story detached homes were wrapped with purple ribbons.
Colleagues remembered Davidson as affable and reliable. Jeffrey Simms, a captain at Engine Co. 69 for 13 years, called him a “wonderful asset,” whose death was a “profound loss.”
“One of my guys I could ask anything of,” he said.
In Harlem, contractors were making plans to take apart the five-story landmark building where Davidson, a 15-year veteran, battled his last fire, after the Department of Buildings deemed it unstable. The agency issued an emergency declaration Friday ordering the owner to tear it down by hand.
Andrew Rudansky, a spokesman for the Department of Buildings, said the building is not at imminent risk of collapse, but that it needs to be demolished for the “safety of the neighboring buildings and the general public.”
Geovanny Fernandez, a lawyer for the building’s owner, Vincent Lampkin, said his client had hired a contractor over the weekend to take apart the upper floors of the building so that fire marshals can gain access to the basement and cellar, where the fire is believed to have started. The process is expected to take about two weeks, he said.
But the contractor cannot bring in a wrecking ball, Rudansky said. The agency specified the building must be taken apart by hand. But Fernandez said they are hoping to save time and money using an excavator designed for jobs that require more precision.
Jim Long, a spokesman for the fire department, said the investigation would not yield quick answers. The demolition has to be done delicately, he said, because of the ongoing investigation.
“They’ve got to go in as slow and carefully as possible,” he said. “Time isn’t a concern. Getting the right answers and complete answers is what’s important right now.”
The site of the fire sits on a row of 11 limestone townhomes in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem that were designed and built in the 1890s by Frederick P. Dinkelberg, an architect known for his work on the Flatiron Building. Its basement was home to the St. Nick’s Jazz Pub, a club that closed in 2011. A crew filming the movie “Motherless Brooklyn” had been working inside the club and an apartment above it when they smelled smoke rising from the cellar, Edward Norton, the director of the film, said Saturday in an Instagram post.
“Had our team not noticed the situation and responded and alerted the fire department with the speed they did, I believe the residents of the building above would have perished,” he wrote.
Norton also praised the fire department: “I have never witnessed firsthand that kind of bravery,” he said. “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.”
Five other people were injured in the fire, including two firefighters who were burned and an 84-year-old woman found on a staircase next door suffering from smoke inhalation.
The building was surrounded by barricades Monday as sunlight poured through its remains, exposing charred walls and overturned furniture.
Residents of the neighboring buildings, 771 St. Nicholas Ave. and 775 St. Nicholas Ave., were ordered to vacate their homes until the demolition was complete.
The tenants of 771 St. Nicholas Ave., which was also damaged by the fire, filed police reports Sunday after returning home to discover that valuable belongings had gone missing after the fire. The tenants, an elderly couple and a family from Montenegro, said gold jewelry, furs and passports were among the items that had vanished.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.