In March of this year, a New York firefighter was killed and two others were injured after a five-alarm fire broke out in the basement of a former Jazz club in Harlem. Edward Norton had been using the location to film his adaptation of the novel Motherless Brooklyn, and in the aftermath of the tragedy, he faced accusations of "recklessness" and a potentially expensive lawsuit. A month later, the FDNY determined that the fire was ultimately caused by a busted boiler igniting nearby flammable objects in the cellar, and thus the responsibility of the building owner, not Norton.
But the lead investigator in the blaze, Fire Marshal Scott Specht, is now alleging that the investigation was a sham, and that FDNY leadership knowingly protected Norton's production company. Last week, he filed a notice of claim accusing Chief Fire Marshal Thomas Kane, his deputy J.D. Lynn and FDNY Assistant Commissioner Carlos Velez of retaliating against him for reporting the cover-up to the Department of Investigation.
According to the notice, Specht found clear evidence that Norton's crew had illegally tampered with the building's electrical system, in some cases piercing wiring with wood screws. He noted that the boiler and a two-by-four piece of wood at the boiler's base were undamaged by the fire. If the fire had really started as the FDNY claimed, the wood and other objects found in the vicinity of the boiler would have been badly charred, Specht alleges.
Norton's film company is also accused of lying about the amount of combustable, petroleum-based movie set materials inside the building at the time of the fire. "There is no doubt in the professional opinion of [Specht] that Edward Norton's movie production company was the precipitating cause of the conflagration that caused the death of Firefighter [Michael] Davidson," the complaint states.
After Specht refused to sign off on the final determination, he says he was harassed by his bosses. He is not seeking damages for the retaliation, but rather calling on the FDNY to transfer the investigation to the federal government.
"As to Norton, his production, 'Motherless Brooklyn,"' will forever be known as creating fatherless children," the complaint states. It goes on to cite the FDNY's "well documented racist history" as an explanation for why it would let the Hollywood production company off the hook, while placing the blame on an African-American building owner from Harlem.
"The legacy of a fallen hero, Michael Davidson, deserves a full and fair investigation," Specht's lawyer, Peter Gleason, told Gothamist. "Unfortunately, the FDNY in the recent past has a history of covering up the culpability of the rich and powerful."
A spokesperson for Norton's production company, Class 5 Inc., could not be reached for comment. The FDNY disputed the allegations, saying in a statement that "a team of nine veteran fire marshals with decades of experience determined unanimously that heat from the boiler ventilation flue pipe ignited nearby combustible materials and caused the fire that took the life of Firefighter Davidson. Any additional investigations will come to the same conclusion."
The newly sworn-in commissioner of the city's Department of Investigation, Margaret Garnett, has been widely encouraged to investigate the claims. The office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
You can read the full notice of claim below: