Truth in firefighter's film set death unknown, retired FDNY fire marshal claims

HARLEM, Manhattan (WABC) -- FDNY Fire Marshal Scott Specht received the most important assignment of his life in March 2018 -- find out what caused the fatal fire that killed one of his own, firefighter Michael Davidson, a husband and father of four.

For the first time, Specht, who is now retired, is speaking out exclusively with 7 On Your Side Investigates about what he feels were deficiencies with the investigation.

"They did not allow a full and complete investigation to happen when we lost one of our own, and that's unforgivable," he said. "We lost a brother firefighter, and we may never know exactly what happened to him."

Specht said the job was made more complicated because a production company was shooting a movie, Motherless Brooklyn, inside the Harlem brownstone when the fire broke out.

"It was incredibly chaotic," he said.

He climbed through five stories of rubble over the course of a few weeks to get to the bottom of what happened, starting with his first theory into what may have caused the blaze -- the boiler.

"I was surprised to find the boiler in very good condition," he said. "And, in fact, there was no sign of excessive heat from the fire in the boiler room."

He also found a rubber glove hanging from the boiler that was not burnt. It was still intact.

"The biggest red flag of the case that I started to feel early on was the pressure to go with the boiler," he said. "The boiler seemed like the easy way out."

But it's a theory he says he didn't have the opportunity to investigate further, and the FDNY ruled that heat from the boiler ventilation pipe ignited nearby combustible materials and caused the fire in the basement of a building on St. Nicholas Avenue.

"What people don't understand is I never agreed that it was the boiler," he said. "My theory was that the boiler could have started the fire."

Specht says he also had a second theory into a possible cause that could've been electrical in nature, after he found electrical cords running through the boiler door and nails punctured through the ceiling near electrical lines.

"Which certainly could cause an arc and could get a fire to start," he said.

But the FDNY says there was no evidence the fire was electrical in nature, though Specht says he wasn't able to investigate either of his theories.

In addition, at the time of the fire, the building's sprinkler system didn't operate even though Specht said it was inspected and found to be working a few weeks prior to the fire.

"Without an independent outside investigation, I may never know the real reason why they were so intent on not looking at the facts of this case," said Specht, who claims he refused to sign off on the case. "To come up with a cause, an origin of the fire at this time, was not only immoral and unethical, it was just plain wrong. We didn't have the opportunity to do the work that needed to get done."

Specht claims the boiler was not tested.

"As I understand it today, that boiler is in the possession of the Hollywood production company's private investigation firm, having never been tested," he said.

It's something 7 On Your Side Investigates has not been able to independently verify. The FDNY has not answered specific questions in regards to the case, telling Eyewitness News in a statement that, "The allegations by this retired member are baseless and without merit."

The statement went on to say:

"The fire was thoroughly investigated over several months, including extensive physical examination of the site for 22 days; interviews with 86 witnesses, tenants, members of the production, and responding Firefighters; viewing of surveillance video and video from the production, and a methodical demolition of the building. A team of experienced Fire Marshals determined that heat from a boiler ventilation flue pipe ignited nearby combustible materials and caused the fire in the cellar of 773 St. Nicholas Avenue where Firefighter Michael R. Davidson was killed on March 23, 2018."

Specht hired an attorney who is suing the FNDY claiming his client was retaliated against.

"Scott has put his whole career and his reputation on the line," attorney Peter Gleason said. "This is perhaps the most tragic case I've ever worked on, because it deals with the legacy and the death of a New York City Fire Department."

In court documents from a separate lawsuit, the production company claimed "all work was performed in compliance with all local laws," that they coordinated with the city and the FDNY to ensure it was "operating safely," and did not "interact with the building's electrical system in any way."

Today, a cross stands at the site where Davidson lost his life, a memorial in honor of a brave firefighter and a constant reminder for Specht.

"It will bother me for the rest of my life, wondering why?" he said. "Why was that able and allowed to happen?"

7 On Your Side Investigates reached out numerous times to the attorneys for the production company and to Davidson's family, but those calls and emails received no response.
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Dan Krauth talks with retired FDNY Fire Marshal Scott Specht, who was tasked with investigating a blaze that killed a firefighter on the set of "Motherless Brooklyn"

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