Watch: N.C. firefighters rescue crane operator trapped above massive 5-alarm fire
The large response of first responders to the Charlotte construction site fire led officials to tell the public to not use 911 except in a true emergency
By Julia Coin
The Charlotte Observer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A massive fire spread across at least two structures and threatened others in Charlotte’s South Park neighborhood Thursday morning.
As of 1 p.m., two workers were not accounted for and officials said they were in the area when the fire broke out in a construction zone. Reports and emergency radio traffic indicated the fire started in a parking garage construction zone, which partially collapsed before 10 a.m.
One construction worker was hurt, suffering what Medic described as “life-threatening injuries.” Firefighters rescued 15 workers who got stuck in the building, issuing two mayday calls for help after getting trapped in the fire themselves.
The 5-alarm fire, which reached temperatures above 2,000 degrees, broke out close to 9 a.m., Charlotte Fire Department fire chief Reginald Johnson said at a news conference.
The amount of wood on the site fed the fire, and neighboring fire departments were called for support, and more than 90 firefighters were on the scene through the afternoon.
A block away around midday, officials ordered at least one business to close for the day and it’s unclear how far evacuation orders reached.
The fire, which was still showing flames and unleashing fiery debris into the area at noon, is in the area of SouthPark Towers near Fairview Road and Piedmont Row Drive, according to first responders.
Some rescued, 2 missing
A man approached officials near the collapsed garage asking for information about his brother. His brother was live streaming while he was stuck in the building, he said. Then he was engulfed by flames, and now they can’t find him, the man told reporters.
Officials have not released any information on how many people were in the construction-site building.
Firefighters, for more than an hour, tried to help someone trapped on a construction crane surrounded by the flaming structure, according to emergency radio. Around 10:50 a.m., he was reported safe.
The crane operator’s wife watched from the ground as firefighters rescued him, according to Alaina Monz, a witness who stood next to her as the fire raged on. Paramedics took him to the hospital, officials said.
Glenn Freeman was delivering windows outside the building that caught fire. He said workers were in the garage when flames quickly took over. He’d heard a machine caught fire in the building, but he wasn’t sure exactly what happened. Officials have not yet commented on what started the fire.
“The black smoke was rolling out of the building,” he said. “And then they told me I had to get my stuff out of the truck.”
But he didn’t have time to, he said.
South Park evacuations
Fire alarms indicated the flames initially spread to Modera SouthPark, a two-building apartment complex still under construction. Another small fire burned across from the apartment building. Firefighters quickly vented the building by drilling holes in the roof.
Duckworth’s Grill & Taphouse, located north of the fire across Fairview Road in the Piedmont Town Center complex, said officials ordered the business to evacuate and was closed for the rest of Thursday.
Police sent an alert calling for Piedmont Town Center to evacuate all areas near Fairview Road, Park South and Barclay Downs, property manager Lincoln Harris said.
“Do not delay evacuation,” the alert said.
A nearby Marriott Residence Inn evacuated guests and went through at least four of their own fire extinguishers, according to a worker. People who worked and lived near the area took to the streets with their own fire extinguishers, putting out smaller fires as they popped up.
One worker lost track of how many fire extinguishers he commandeered. At one point it was four, then he stopped counting, he told the Observer.
Peter Joseph is staying at the hotel with four of his coworkers for a 14-week stint.
Fire alarms woke him up around 10:30 a.m. He left everything but his phone and car keys behind in the room. By 12:30, he perched on a concrete ledge and watched as firefighters battled flames shooting out from the garage across the street.
The wind whipped up smoke and charred debris as he talked to his wife in Georgia.
“I’m stuck,” he said.
He didn’t want to go back into the room in case something happened to the building while he was inside. He could go try to nap in his parked car, but he and his wife knew he wouldn’t be able to fall asleep.
Fortunately, his laptop was at work. His clothes and other things he brought could be replaced. For now, all he had to do was watch and wait for the all-clear.
STRUCTURE FIRE: 7700 block Liberty Row Dr. Charlotte Fire fighters currently on scene battling blaze at construction site. pic.twitter.com/ZWIBK1WuNq— Charlotte Fire Dept (@CharlotteFD) May 18, 2023
Emergency 911 situation
With a huge response from Charlotte Fire, Medic and police, officials urged the public to not use 911 Thursday except in true emergency situations.
NC Emergency Management officials continue to monitor the scene and “are ready to respond as needed, but at this point, it is a Charlotte-Mecklenburg response,” spokesman Brian Haines said.
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyes said she was watching the fire along with residents.
“...We’re really thankful for our police and fire who have it under control,” she said.
Mill Creek Residential, the developer of the apartment complex that caught fire next to the parking structure, said its first priority is the health and safety of the people working at the apartments and the surrounding area.
“Our thoughts are with those who were impacted and their friends and family members. We are gathering as much information as possible on what occurred and will take the appropriate measures to address today’s incident,” a spokesperson said.
The cause of the fire was not immediately known. By about 10:30 a.m., smoke around the area had dissipated.
South Park roads closed
Smoke pervaded the area, including surrounding neighborhoods, and affected drivers’ vision, according to a reporter on the scene.
Police closed Liberty Row Drive in front of the fire and asked drivers to avoid Fairview Road, Assembly Street, Barclay Downs Drive and Park South Drive. More than 200 cars lined South Park Drive and part of Archdale Drive about a mile in each direction. By 11:30 a.m., Park South Drive’s southbound lanes reopened.
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