Harlem building blaze that killed veteran firefighter may have been sparked by boiler

Published in the New York Daily News on March 24, 2018

A balky basement boiler emerged Saturday as the possible cause for a five-alarm fire that killed an FDNY veteran trapped inside a burning Harlem building.

The boiler was repaired in the days before the blaze that killed Firefighter Michael Davidson, leading investigators to question if there was a link to the inferno, said an FDNY source with knowledge of the case.

City records indicate the building at 773 St. Nicholas Ave. was cited a half-dozen times since 2011 for boiler issues, including a still-active complaint from last year for failure to file an annual inspection report.

But fire marshals remain unable to get into the heavily-damaged basement and determine if the boiler ignited the raging blaze in the 98-year-old building.

Davidson, 37, was posthumously promoted to FDNY lieutenant Saturday, two days after his smoke-inhalation death inside the building.

He was on the department promotion list after passing the lieutenant’s exam in 2015.

“He had all the qualities of an officer and more,” said FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro. “Lt. Davidson was a natural-born leader. . . . His promotion is well deserved.”

The fire source indicated there was a possible leak repaired in the boiler, and fire investigators want to insure the repairs stayed up to code with authorized materials rather than substandard products.

The five-story building was cited for failing to file its boiler inspection report in 2011, 2013, 2014, twice in 2015 and again in February 2017.

And between 2001 and 2009, the city flagged the building for failure to keep the boiler at the standard operating pressure.

Despite the records, landlord Vincent Lampkin, 57, defended the state of his building’s heating system.

“It’s winter. It’s cold. We’re always checking to make sure the boiler is serviced,” he said. “We regularly, you know, people want heat. There was a snowstorm. Regularly checking heat, checking hot water. I had a lot people here. I had to keep the heat and everything maintained every day.”

Fire marshals are anxious to get into the lower levels of the damaged five-story rowhouse and examine the boiler.

Geovanny Fernandez, Lampkin’s attorney, said inspectors were able to access a small fraction of the basement level, which used to house the jazz club known as St. Nick’s Pub, on Saturday.

The boiler was housed in a cellar below the shuttered club.

“At this point, we should be trying to secure the building and ensure the safety of the neighbors and residents,” he told the Daily News. “The fire marshal has said he has no idea what the cause is. For us to be speculating is premature.”

Officials have told Lampkin the charred, hulking facade of the building will need to be demolished.

“Financially, I’m in a little bad shape. I don’t even know if I can pay for this demolition. Not nearly,” Larkin said.

“You’re talking to a guy with no stability right now. Somebody who’s worn out,” he added. “My heart goes out to the family.”

Davidson, a married father of four small kids, was the first man into the burning basement after Engine Co. 69 arrived on the scene Thursday evening.

Police in Davidson’s town of Floral Park, L.I., stood watch Saturday outside the home where the firefighter lived with his wife Eileen and their children — a 6-year-old son and three girls, ages 7, 3 and 1.

A neighbor dropped off a package and an envelope in the doorway of the otherwise quiet suburban home.

Davidson disappeared in the dense smoke and heavy flames as he and his colleagues pulled back from the basement, where his body was later discovered by distraught fellow firefighters.

His face mask was disconnected from its air regulator — the first step typically taken by a firefighter no longer getting air into his mask, the FDNY source said.

The other theory under consideration was that falling debris had dislodged the regulator during the chaotic response in the basement.

The firefighters union president, Gerard Fitzgerald, paid homage in advance of Tuesday’s funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the heroic first responder.

“Firefighter Davidson is a hero, and in his death embodies the title of ‘Bravest,'” said Fitzgerald. “His death is a reminder of the dangerous work New York City firefighters do every day in our city.

“Firefighter Michael R. Davidson’s sacrifice will never be forgotten,” he added.

Davidson was the son of a firefighter who worked in the same Harlem firehouse and the brother of Bronx Firefighter Eric Davidson — an 11-year FDNY veteran.

“Both of them worked at busy houses,” the source said. “They didn’t want to be on a quiet house in Staten Island. You go to these houses because you want to respond to fires.”

Davidson, who joined the FDNY in May 2003, was cited on four different occasions for bravery and life-saving actions on the job.

Before going to work Thursday, the firefighter spent his morning making a snowman with his kids outside their suburban Long Island home.

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