UPDATE, 1 P.M.: Elena Brunn, another neighbor of Eng’s on the 33rd floor of the Manhattan Plaza building, tells Deadline that she smelled smoke and that the FDNY arrived “within minutes” of an alarm sounding.
“Here on her floor, a particularly close-knit one, we’re in shock,” Brunn said. “Viv was an exceptionally fine human being. The frailest middle-aged woman I’ve ever seen, she never complained. When she went out of the house, it was with eye make-up and some emblem of Quebecoise élan—delicate earrings, a draped silk scarf.”
EARLIER: Vivien Eng, a one-time member of the famed Martha Graham Dance Company who appeared in musical ensembles and played a nurse in Lee Daniels’ 2009 breakout film Precious, was found unconscious in her flame-engulfed apartment Tuesday afternoon. She was taken to the burn unit of New York Presbyterian Hospital, where she died Thursday as a result of burns and smoke inhalation.
The fire was discovered by Eng’s neighbor and friend, actor Dylan Baker (CBS’ The Good Wife and most recently on Broadway in the Helen Mirren-starring The Audience), who had just returned with his family to the building at 484 West 43rd Street. Manhattan Plaza, a two-tower complex spanning the blocks between West 42nd and West 43rd streets from Ninth to Tenth avenues, which is largely occupied by actors, directors and other residents working in the arts. When Baker entered through the open front door, he found the fire out of control and heard no response when he called out Eng’s name. He called 911, which dispatched the fire department. News of the fire was first reported by NBC O&O television station WNBC4.
Baker, who played Prime Minister John Major in The Audience, said he noticed flames coming from Eng’s apartment when returning home around 4:30 PM on Tuesday. “I banged on the door and shouted her name,” Baker said. “I opened her door — I was surprised to find it open — and there were flames everywhere, and smoke was coming out at me so I had to slam the door. It was a full-fledged fire. It was terrifying.”
Fire marshals said the cause was a “careless discard of smoking materials.” A Deadline request for information from FDNY about the fire — in particular whether smoke and fire alarms were in place and in working order in the building, a high-rise tower dating from the 1970s — had not been addressed as of this report.
Eng’s sole Broadway appearance was in the ensemble of a 1996 revival of The King And I that starred Donna Murphy and Lou Diamond Phillips. She had performed in the ensemble of Chess at nearby Paper Mill Playhouse, and was part of the large company of New York-based actors who found work on Dick Wolf’s police procedurals. Extremely popular with her neighbors, Eng suffered a decline in her health in recent years. Myopathy, a degenerative muscle disease, limited her mobility but not, her friends said in various reports, her generosity and sense of humor.