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Man who died in Trump Tower fire was respected art dealer, friend says

Todd Brassner was known for his kind-heartedness but also was tough-minded in business. The fire’s cause is still being investigated, FDNY says.

People look out of a broken window above

People look out of a broken window above a fire-damaged apartment on the 50th floor of Trump Tower on Sunday, the day after a fatal four-alarm fire in the Manhattan building. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

The resident of Trump Tower who died after a fire broke out in the high-rise Saturday spent years as a well-respected art dealer and accomplished musician, but also dealt with health and financial setbacks, according to a childhood friend and court records.

Todd Brassner, 67, who lived on the 50th floor of President Donald Trump’s signature Manhattan building, died at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital Saturday night a short time after being transported there in critical condition, officials said.

Fire marshals were at the Fifth Avenue skyscraper Sunday investigating the cause of the four-alarm fire that broke out at about 5:35 p.m. Saturday. Six firefighters were treated for minor burns, smoke inhalation and other injuries that are not considered life-threatening.

“The cause of the fire is still under investigation,” FDNY spokesman James Long said Sunday.

Long said the FDNY first learned about the fire through an alarm linked to the building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.

“That is what notified us of the fire,” Long said. “The detection system worked.”

The smell of smoke remained heavy in the air along Fifth Avenue near the Trump Tower Sunday. The building’s public atrium — where Trump announced his White House run — remained closed. East 56th Street was closed between Fifth and Madison avenues while firefighters and crews removed glass and other materials from the building damaged by the fire.

The 58-floor building, located amid some of Manhattan’s most expensive real estate, includes Trump’s longtime primary residence. Trump, whose company completed construction on the building in 1983, still lives in a 10,000-square foot apartment on the top three floors of the building when he returns to the city from Washington. The Trump Organization has offices in the tower, too. The president was in Washington at the time of the fire.

Brassner, a well-known dealer in the city’s art scene, is mentioned numerous times in pop-art icon Andy Warhol’s posthumous autobiography, “The Andy Warhol Diaries,” published in 1989. But longtime friend Betsy Broadman said Brassner was a brilliant figure in the art world in his own right.

Broadman, who grew up with Brassner in Westchester, said he developed a love and appreciation of art, music and literature from his parents. “He picked up a lot from his dad,” she said. “They were a very close-knit family.”

Brassner was single and did not have children, Broadman said. According to court filings from his 2015 bankruptcy case, he struggled with “debilitating” health issues in recent years.

Brassner was also a passionate musician who collected guitars and played in bands for much of his life, Broadman said.

“He was a very good guitar player,” she said. “He was gentle, extremely gentle, loving and amazingly generous.”

Brassner’s bankruptcy filing provides a look into his eclectic tastes and intellectual curiosity. His assets included more than 100 vintage electric guitars from the 1950s and 1960s, 150 ukuleles made between 1900 and 1950, and banjos from the 1910s. He also owned an 1880 organ obtained from the estate of poet Allen Ginsburg and a Jimi Hendrix-autographed album.

Brassner’s art collection included a portrait of novelist William S. Burroughs by “On the Road” author Jack Kerouac and pieces from artists Mati Klarewein and designer Josef Hoffman, as well as a portrait of Brassner created and signed by Warhol. His apartment was worth $2.5 million, according to the bankruptcy filing.

Broadman said Brassner’s knack for retaining the small details from those he met in the city’s art circles was one reason for his success.

“He was like an old-time politician,” Broadman said, comparing Brassner to the late, legendary U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Tip O’Neill, who was known for an ability to win over even his most hardened political rivals. Brassner “always remembered everything about you and your family. That is why he did so well,” Broadman said.”

But Brassner was known to be tough when it came to his work, she said.

“He could also be very hard-nosed in his [business] dealings,” she said. “He was a very complex person.”

Broadman said Brassner’s 50th floor Trump Tower apartment, purchased in 1996, had “gorgeous vistas.”

The cause of the fire remained undetermined Sunday.

Brassner’s apartment was not required to have a sprinkler system, Long said. New York City code requires sprinklers in buildings constructed in 2008 or later, FDNY spokesman James Long said. Buildings built before 2008 are required to install sprinklers during major renovations.

The New York City Council considered proposals that would have required sprinklers in all residential properties in the 1990s, but the legislation stalled for years in the face of stiff opposition from the real estate industry — including Trump, then a powerful Manhattan developer — because of the cost. Real estate lobbyists complained sprinklers would have cost up to $4 per square foot to equip an entire building, and that sprinklers were prone to vandalism and malfunctions.

“People feel safer with sprinklers,” Trump told The New York Times in 1999. “But the problem with the bill is that it doesn’t address the buildings that need sprinklers the most. If you look at the fire deaths in New York, almost all of them are in one- or two-family houses.”

Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and ex-council speaker Peter F. Vallone pushed for a sprinkler law after seven people, including three firefighters, died in residential fires in December 1998.

The City Council approved legislation that mandated sprinklers in residential properties in 1999 that was signed despite misgivings by Giuliani, who believed the measure was not strong enough. The bill exempted new residential buildings with three or fewer units and it did not require public address systems for buildings of more than six floors, as Giuliani wanted.

Trump said after the bill was approved that he would spend $3 million to install sprinklers in all 350 units of Trump World Tower, an apartment complex that was under construction at the time on Manhattan’s East Side.

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