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In Wake of Fatal High-Rise Fire, FD Says Evacuating Not Always Safest Plan

By  Mathew Katz and Trevor Kapp | January 6, 2014 4:09pm 

  Colleagues remembered Daniel McClung as a driven playwright and lover of theater.
Colleagues Remember Daniel McClung
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HELL'S KITCHEN — One day after young playwright Daniel McClung was overcome with smoke as he tried to flee a high-rise blaze in his Hell's Kitchen apartment building, FDNY officials urged New Yorkers to familiarize themselves with their buildings' fire plan, adding that it's not always the safest move to evacuate when you smell smoke.

"There is a natural instinct to flee," FDNY Chief of Operations James Esposito told reporters outside the fire-scarred building on Monday. "[But] 99.9 percent of the time you're safer in your fireproof apartment. If you do smell some smoke coming underneath your door, put some wet towels down and call the fire department.... You should not self-evacuate if you are on a floor above the fire. Stay put."

McClung, 27, lived with his husband Michael Cohen, 32, on the 38th floor of 500 W. 43rd St., a building known as the Strand. The newlywed couple fled down the building's stairs after a fire started on the 20th floor about 11 a.m. Sunday and filled much of the tower with smoke.

McClung married Cohen at a ceremony in Salem, Ma. in July, according to the couple's wedding website.

McClung and Cohen were found in a stairwell seven stories down from their apartment. McClung was rushed to the hospital with severe smoke inhalation, where he was pronounced dead. Cohen was in serious condition on Monday after being hospitalized for smoke inhalation, the FDNY said.

The 41-story building's fire safety plan called for residents to remain in their apartments if a fire started lower down in the tower, because the building is fireproof, Esposito said.

"They would have survived, absolutely, if they had stayed in their apartment," he said.

Esposito said the blaze was sparked by a power cord in an apartment on the 20th floor. The tenant got home, opened the door, and saw smoke flooding from his apartment. He ran, leaving the apartment door open to send smoke pouring into the hallway and the staircase, and send fresh oxygen into the apartment to fuel the flames, fire officials said.

Esposito said the FDNY is investigating why the building did not have legally-required fire safety doors that are supposed to close on their own, Esposito said.

“The door did not self close. When firefighters arrived on the floor, we had a very smoky floor and we had a considerable heat condition on that floor,” he said.

On Monday, McClung's devastated friends and colleagues mourned the playwright, whom they described as a young star in the city's offbeat theater scene.

"He was a quiet, kind, fierce kind of person," said James Peck, McClung's former professor at Muhlenberg College. Flags at the small college in Allentown, Pa. were hung at half mast on Monday in McClung's memory.

McClung — called "Dan" by his friends — made a name for himself in the school's English and theater departments and was also active in the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity, officials said. He always had a penchant for difficult plays, his colleagues said.

When he directed "Three More Sleepless Nights" — a play by Caryl Churchill about a married couple cheating on one another — McClung helped his fellow students at Muhlenberg get through the very dark piece.

"He just went straight at it and supported and coached a very young company of actors through some very nasty material," Peck said. "He had just the right amount of control of the room so people could relax and feel free."

After graduating in 2008, McClung moved to New York looking to get involved with theater and work on his own plays, colleagues said. He interned at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater for six months after graduation, a place he was attracted to because of the company's record of working with more challenging playwrights.

"He had a chance to meet a lot of people, network — and a chance to write. That's where he really started to blossom as a playwright," said Rattlestick managing director Brian Long. "He was a very lovely guy and would come to our theater five or six times a year for shows after leaving."

Since moving to the city, McClung wrote several plays, including "Inamorto," "Flimsy Things" and "The Paper Nautilus," according to his website.

He also spent time in 2009 working for the Clubbed Thumb theater company, where he started as an intern but was quickly hired.

"He helped both produce our summer festival that year and stayed on and helped us administratively for a time," wrote producing artistic director Maria Striar in an email. "He was one of those people: directed, sharp, uber-competent and slyly funny."

Peck, the theater professor at Muhlenberg, said he was sad that McClung's death meant that the world would never get to see a full lifetime of his work.

"He had a kind of gentleness that was sweet and lovely — with a penchant for dark and brutal material and a ferocity of really going for it on stage," Peck said. "That's a rare and beautiful combination."