Rapid Response: Charlotte leaders detail ‘unprecedented’ construction site fire, secondary blaze response
Fire Chief Reggie Johnson and Communications Shift Supervisor David Bradshaw address the mayday call, fill-in response, and heroic acts amid loss of life
We’ve all been dispatched to the “reported vehicle/trailer fire next to a building.” Nine times out of 10, that’s exactly what it is – simple enough to extinguish with a quick hit of water. However, that one time, it’s an incident like we saw this week in Charlotte, N.C.
Few of us will ever experience a vehicle/trailer fire like the Charlotte Fire Department faced on May 18, but the lessons learned are invaluable to us all. To get some perspective on what the CFD experienced, I spoke with Charlotte Fire Chief Reggie Johnson and Communications Shift Supervisor David Bradshaw.
What happened: Liberty Row Drive
The Charlotte Fire Department was dispatched to the reported “vehicle fire next to a building” on Liberty Row Drive at 9:04 a.m. The standard assignment of three engines, one ladder and a battalion chief was upgraded when the first units, arriving within a couple minutes of dispatch, reported heavy smoke showing.
The seven-floor wood-frame structure under construction was separated from another building and a parking structure by a standard-width driveway.
Firefighters found a construction crane towering over the structure, with the crane’s operator actively swinging the boom trying to assist workers escaping the building. Firefighters were also informed that the original reported “vehicle” was actually a trailer that contained hazardous chemicals, prompting the call for a hazmat team response.
In rapid succession, additional alarms were called: Second alarm at 9:10 a.m., third alarm at 9:20 a.m., and fourth alarm at 9:30 a.m. It is important to note that the fourth alarm was an automatic dispatch, brought by department policy when a mayday is called.
The crew from Ladder 1 had radioed a mayday. The crew was actively attempting to reach confirmed trapped occupants on the sixth floor. Deteriorating fire and structural conditions quickly made continued interior operations untenable. As a result of the mayday, the rapid intervention team was deployed to the sixth floor. However, Chief Johnson reports that “Ladder 1’s crew was able to retreat to the stairwell, just as the Rescue made their way up.”
A fifth alarm was called at 9:56 a.m. At this point, with the additional units for the hazmat response, there was the rough equivalent of a sixth alarm worth of units operating on the scene.
Back outside, the crane operator remained in place, perched more than 100 feet above ground, continuing to maneuver the boom to help people escape. The operator was in immediate peril but able to communicate with the command post by radio. Firefighters climbed the crane and protected the operator as they all climbed back down the crane together. Chief Johnson reported that throughout the duration of the incident, including after the operator’s evacuation, a ladder truck with master streams was positioned with the sole purpose of flowing water on the crane structure.
While the ladder truck sustained significant thermal damage during this operation, this action likely prevented an even greater disaster. A crane collapse would have been catastrophic, especially considering the workers and firefighters operating well within the potential collapse zone. At least two additional fire engines were reported to have suffered thermal damage from the incident.
In a related but separate incident approximately one-quarter mile away, dispatch received reports of fire on the roof of a high-rise on Park South Drive. At 11:02 a.m., Charlotte Fire dispatched a box alarm of disparate fill-in units, many of which had never operated in the city, that ultimately found an active fire on the roof of an eight-story building. Bradshaw noted that units that responded to this fire were transferred in from two different counties approximately 30 miles apart.
Bradshaw confirmed that Park South units had to stretch lines and use saws to achieve extinguishment at this second fire, which was believed to have been caused by drop-down from the Liberty Row fire. The second fire was held to the roof and only required the initial alarm to contain and extinguish.
Both Bradshaw and Johnson called the response into the city unprecedented.
Reflections heroic actions and loss of life
During the succession of alarm dispatches, the fire was making rapid progression. Chief Johnson described the incident as “the fastest fire spread I’ve seen in my nearly 30 years in this business.”
Reflecting on the work of Charlotte firefighters and the crane operator, Chief Johnson added, “You hear that saying all the time – risk a lot to save a lot, well today, we risked a lot to save a lot, and as a result we were able to save 15 people who were in imminent danger.”
While Chief Johnson was effusive about the heroic actions he witnessed, he was saddened to report that two bodies were recovered from the structure on Friday. These are believed to be the two workers who Ladder 1’s crew was attempting to access. Such news under these kinds of conditions is never easy for rescue crews to reconcile. Chief Johnson indicated that the CFD on-staff behavioral health coordinator, peer support team, and crisis response members and animals will be working with firefighters as long as necessary.
Chief Johnson further remarked, “We save lives every day, and I am very saddened to have to report the recoveries today; however, I am truly in awe at what our firefighters did and sacrificed today. And the crane operator, while we still need to gain a full report from him, his actions were heroic as well.”
Construction site protection system details unknown
The vertical lumber yards that we see on construction sites across the United States are problems lying-in-wait. While NFPA 241 provides the standard for safeguarding construction, alteration and demolition operations, and it has been reported to Chief Johnson that there were standpipes in the stairwells, we recognize that a full investigation will need to be completed to determine what protection systems were (or were not) in place at this stage of construction.
Chief Johnson confirmed that this structure was not the common “donut” construction that fire departments across the country are facing.
With a full after-action report still ahead, Johnson and Bradshaw reflected on initial takeaways from the incident:
- “We already know that we’ve got to get out into the construction sites and preplan them in detail. We’ll be working on that very soon.”
- “As we see the details of the investigation unfold, we’ll be looking at our codes and ordinances to determine what we might need to do differently.”
- Multiple units that came into the city to fill in (and subsequently respond on the second working fire) were not listed in the CAD system: “It was a mess, but our folks did a great job pulling it all together. We’ll look at the whole incident, but we already know this is something we need to address.”
- Some off-duty Charlotte firefighters were staffing units that came in on fill-ins – a critical help in systematic and location familiarity for these fill-in units.
What’s next in Charlotte
As you would expect, a full and detailed investigation with multiple agencies will work to pinpoint an exact cause and origin. Until the fire is fully extinguished all structures have been stabilized, and the investigation is complete, the scene will remain active. As the investigations continue, evaluations of the damaged response units remain to be conducted. While not 100% sure at this stage, Chief Johnson believes the units will be repairable.
While firefighters and investigators continue to work the scene, behavioral health and crisis management teams will be filtering through the department to ensure that staff is taken care of. Johnson reiterated his pride and appreciation for the efforts of the Charlotte firefighters, adding his condolences for the loss of life: “Our hearts and prayers go out to the community and the families of those we couldn’t get to in this tragic fire. It’s a sad day, yet our firefighters performed heroically, and I couldn’t be prouder.”