NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Smoke inhalation and thermal burns caused the death of a New York City firefighter who perished in a cluttered public housing high-rise apartment fire in Brooklyn.

A spokeswoman for the New York City medical examiner’s office said Monday the manner of Lt. Gordon “Matt” Ambelas’ death still was under investigation.

Fire officials said the 40-year-old FDNY veteran was overcome with smoke and flames while searching for possible victims Saturday at the Independence Towers on Wilson Street in Williamsburg.

A preliminary investigation showed a pinched electrical cord in a cluttered apartment started the blaze on the 19th floor of the 21-story building, fire officials said Sunday.

Flames quickly spread to the 17th and 18th floors. Ambelas was among the first firefighters in the building.

Fellow firefighters found Ambelas unconscious and carried him out of the building. They worked with emergency rescuers to try to revive him, but he died at a hospital, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

“New York has suffered a terrible and tragic loss,” de Blasio said Sunday. “We all mourn his loss, and I ask every New Yorker to keep Lt. Ambelas and his family in their thoughts and prayers.”

“It’s a moment that we in the Fire Department all dread when we lose one of our family,” Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. “But Lt. Ambelas died doing what fire officers do — leading firefighters in search for life.”

Angel Pagan, the tenant in apartment 19B, denied to CBS 2 that his apartment was cluttered.

Officials have declined to detail what happened inside the apartment, citing the ongoing investigation.

Meanwhile on Monday, as CBS 2’s Dave Carlin reported, family and friends could not believe Ambelas was gone.

Family and friends said Ambelas’ life of fighting fires and saving lives was constant in a stellar, decorated 14-year career. But they said love for family was what he really lived for.

Ambelas’ wife, Nanette Russo-Ambleas, posted on Facebook an emotional tribute.

“I was lucky enough to call you my husband for almost 10 wonderful years… Gabriella and Giovanna had the best father in the world. I will raise our girls to make you proud. I love you,” she wrote.

Ambelas and his wife’s two daughters are 5 and 8 years old. They lived on Staten Island.

Fellow firefighter and former roommate Eric Bischoff remarked on Ambelas’ bravery.

“He died a hero — that’s how he lived,” he said. Ambelas, he added, was “truly one of the best human beings that anyone would ever want to meet.”

Ambelas had been promoted to lieutenant 10 months ago. Throughout a 14-year career he helped the city through its darkest hours, including the recovery from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Superstorm Sandy.

In May, Ambelas helped save 7-year-old Mendy Gotlieb, who became trapped in a roll-down gate. The boy was pulled 15 feet off the ground when his arm and head got stuck.

CBS 2’s Carlin interviewed Ambelas that night. Ambelas was friendly and proud of his firefighters who ingeniously used airbag devices to safely free the boy.

“The airbags inflate, and it allows the metal to expand, which released his head,” Ambelas said at the time.

Two weeks ago, the local Orthodox Jewish community honored Ambelas and his Ladder 119 comrades for their heroics.

Ambelas said at the time that the incident “shows that FDNY members are always ready to help others. It was great teamwork all around.”

He was the first New York City firefighter killed on duty since April 2012.

A wake will be held at the Casey McCallum Rice Funeral home on Staten Island on Tuesday and Wednesday from 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m.

The funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Clare’s Church on Staten Island.

A fund has been established for the education of his daughters, ages 5 and 8. Checks should be made to the “Ambelas Children’s Education Fund” and mailed to:

The FDNY Foundation
9 MetroTech Center
Brooklyn NY 11201

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(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)


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