A devastating fire broke out in Charlotte’s South Park neighborhood on Thursday morning, engulfing multiple structures and posing a threat to nearby buildings. While firefighters managed to bring the bulk of the flames under control by early afternoon, they remained vigilant for potential hotspots.
As of Thursday at 5:30 p.m., two workers who were present at the construction site where the fire originated were still unaccounted for, according to officials. Concerned about the fire’s embers, nearby businesses evacuated and closed their doors.
During a press conference held on Friday, Charlotte Fire Department Chief Reginald Johnson confirmed the recovery of two bodies that morning. The victims were identified as Demonte Tyree Sherrill and Rueben Holmes, as reported by their supervisor.
Chief Johnson stated that the fire was accidental, originating in a spray foam insulation trailer at the construction site. Despite ongoing investigations, authorities have yet to determine the exact cause of the initial spark.
The fire, classified as a five-alarm blaze, reached temperatures exceeding 2,000 degrees. It was first reported at 9 a.m. by a construction crew member’s distress call to 911, informing them of a trailer fire inside the garage. Audio recordings obtained from emergency radio traffic revealed that the trailer, disconnected from a vehicle, proved immovable.
As the flames rapidly spread, workers evacuated while additional ladder trucks and personnel were called in. The initial vehicle fire quickly escalated into a full-fledged structural fire. Fueled by the piles of wood present at the construction site, the blaze intensified, making it difficult for everyone to escape.
The initial responders delivered distressing news upon arrival: two individuals were trapped on the upper floor of the parking garage, with flames advancing just a few levels below them. Recognizing the signs of an imminent collapse, fire leaders ordered the crews to retreat and maintain a safe distance within the first 20 to 30 minutes of tackling the fire.
By 10 a.m., the garage partially collapsed, as confirmed by officials and emergency radio traffic.
Over 90 firefighters from neighboring departments swiftly converged on the South Park Towers area throughout Thursday afternoon. Stray flames and burning debris persisted in the vicinity of Fairview Road and Piedmont Row Drive until approximately 1:30 p.m.
Local workers and residents took it upon themselves to extinguish small fires that erupted along the closed streets of the neighborhood.
The issue of construction safety has become a significant concern in Charlotte due to recent incidents. On January 2, three construction workers lost their lives and two others sustained injuries when the scaffolding they were on collapsed. The tragedy occurred near uptown Charlotte and Dilworth on Morehead Street, claiming the lives of Jose Canaca, Gilberto Monico Fernández, and Jesus “Chuy” Olivares, who fell from a height of approximately 70 feet.
Rescues and Missing Individuals
Firefighters successfully rescued 15 workers who had become trapped inside the building, according to officials. However, two mayday calls for assistance were issued when firefighters themselves found themselves in jeopardy due to the fire. Fire Chief Johnson stated that paramedics transported one construction worker, who had been stranded in a crane for over an hour, to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.
The crane operator’s wife anxiously watched from the ground as firefighters endeavored to save her husband. Nate Johnson, a witness who stood beside her as flames encroached upon the crane, described the operator’s efforts to lower people from the building using the crane. Eventually, the escalating flames forced the operator to shut down the crane, secure the doors, cover himself, and pour cold water over his body to protect against the intense heat.
Firefighters successfully rescued the operator at around 11 a.m., transporting him to the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation.
Approximately two hours later, a man approached officials near the collapsed garage, seeking information about his brother. The brother had live-streamed a video with his phone while trapped inside the building, which allegedly showed him being engulfed by flames. However, his whereabouts currently remain unknown.
Glenn Freeman, who was delivering windows nearby when the fire broke out, witnessed the rapid progression of the flames. While he heard reports of a machine catching fire inside the building, he was uncertain of the exact cause. Authorities have yet to comment on the initial ignition source.
“As black smoke billowed from the building,” Freeman recounted, “they told me to get my belongings out of the truck.” Unfortunately, he did not have sufficient time to retrieve his belongings before evacuating.
Evacuations in South Park
Fire alarms initially indicated that the flames had spread to Modera South Park, a two-building apartment complex still under construction. Firefighters swiftly intervened, ventilating the building by drilling holes in the roof to extinguish a small fire burning across the street.
Upon receiving an alert from the police, the management of Piedmont Town Center promptly ordered the evacuation of all areas near Fairview Road, Park South, and Barclay Downs. Duckworth’s Grill & Taphouse, located within the complex, complied with the evacuation order and remained closed on Thursday. The establishment plans to reopen in the evening, according to a spokesperson.
Residents and guests at the nearby Marriott Residence Inn were also evacuated, with workers reportedly utilizing at least four fire extinguishers. Concerned individuals living and working in the vicinity took it upon themselves to tackle smaller fires that erupted sporadically, armed with their own fire extinguishers.
One worker lost count of how many fire extinguishers he had used, initially tallying four before ceasing to keep track, as reported to The Charlotte Observer.
Inn guest Peter Joseph, awakened by fire alarms at around 10:30 a.m., promptly evacuated, leaving behind all but his phone and car keys. By 12:30 p.m., he found himself perched on a concrete ledge, observing firefighters battling the flames emanating from the garage across the street. With smoke and charred debris swirling around him, Joseph spoke with his wife in Georgia, expressing his concerns about re-entering the inn in case of further building damage. Although he considered taking a nap in his parked car, he acknowledged that sleep would elude him and chose to wait and watch for the all-clear signal.
Emergency 911 Situation
Given the extensive response from the Charlotte Fire Department, Medic, and the police, authorities urged the public to refrain from using the emergency 911 line on Thursday, except in true emergency situations. North Carolina Emergency Management officials continue to monitor the scene and stand ready to assist as necessary, although the response primarily falls under the jurisdiction of Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper expressed his gratitude for the dedicated efforts of emergency workers at the scene, lauding them for their commitment to keeping people safe from the South Park fire in Charlotte.
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyes affirmed her vigilance, closely monitoring the fire alongside concerned residents. She expressed gratitude for the commendable work of the police and fire departments, who managed to bring the situation under control.
Mill Creek Residential, the developer of the apartment complex adjacent to the parking structure, emphasized their priority of ensuring the health and safety of the individuals working on the site and the surrounding area. A spokesperson for the company conveyed condolences to those affected and their loved ones, pledging to gather comprehensive information about the incident and take appropriate action.