Two construction workers died in a May 18 fire that consumed two under-construction apartment buildings in Charlotte, N.C., officials have confirmed.
Charlotte Fire Dept. Chief Reginald Johnson told reporters at a May 19 press conference that firefighters discovered the remains of two bodies inside the burned building, and Keith Suggs, owner of Atlanta-based contractor KVS Windows and Doors, confirmed to ENR that two employees, Demonte Sherrill and Rueben Holmes, both door installers, died in the fire.
Johnson said the accidental fire started in a foam insulation trailer on the ground floor. Without drywall to curb the flames, and with breezy conditions, the fire spread rapidly, Johnson said.
"We seldom have large fires of this magnitude," he said at the press conference, a sentiment reiterated by Charlotte Police Chief Johnny Jennings, who said that in 31 years of work, "I've never seen a fire of this magnitude that has impacted our community the way this has."
The five-alarm fire broke out just after 9 a.m. on May 18 and moved rapidly, according to the Associated Press, which reports that 15 workers, including a tower crane operator, were rescued by more than 90 firefighters who responded to the five-alarm blaze. Firefighters also had to be rescued after becoming trapped, said the Associated Press.
Local radio station WFAE reported flames up to 50 ft high, with photos and videos on social media showing a large plume of black smoke billowing above the city before the fire was mostly extinguished by noon.
Workers Were Door Installers
Sherrill and Holmes were installing doors on the sixth floor, where Suggs said there was only one way up and one way down—a staircase on the opposite end of the building. The two workers were trapped when the fire cut them off from the stairs.
"There was no way for them to get out of the building," Suggs said, related to Sherrill and Holmes. "They were on the sixth floor where the fire was ... (and) by the time the fire crews got up to where they were, they couldn't get to that side of the building."
Sherrill had worked for Suggs for just three days, he said, and Holmes for more than two years.
Johnson said that a crew of firefighters working to rescue Sherill and Holmes became trapped themselves and had to make a mayday call to be rescued. There was limited visibility in the area and the crew could not see the two men and were trying to locate them by sound, but were ultimately unsuccessful.
"We are deeply saddened by the tragic passing of the two people who were missing in the construction fire that took place yesterday," said Alex Eyssen, Carolinas senior managing director for developer of the under-construction complex called Mill Creek Residential. "This is the worst thing that can happen in our industry and there are no words that can express the emotions we are experiencing from this loss. Our thoughts are with the victims' loved ones.”
Local news stations report that Sherrill, a 30-year-old father of four, called family members from inside the burning building and made a Facebook Live video pleading for help.
After speaking with Sherrill’s parents, Charlotte station WSOC reported that he was a construction worker and one of two previously reported as missing. His father Terry Campbell told the station that Sherrill’s boss said that Sherrill did not make it out of the building.
Another local station, WCNC, reported that Sherrill’s fiancée told a reporter that he didn’t work in construction but was approached by a contractor to help inside the building, and was not wearing proper safety equipment. Chrystina Stovall told WCNC that he was working on building windows on the sixth floor, but “this morning, they took his harness away.”
The two workers were at the under-construction apartment complex in Charlotte's South Park neighborhood that was destroyed in a fire, leading to multiple rescues of firefighters and construction workers, including a tower crane operator, according to the Fire Dept. on Twitter.
The Police Dept. was continuing to ask residents in the neighborhood to avoid the area near the 7700 block of Liberty Row Drive, as the Fire Dept. had been asking others with family members working at the site to call 911 and provide their names, dates of birth, physical descriptions and recent photos.
Construction worker Berta Hernandez told WFAE that the fire was on the second floor while she was working on the sixth floor. She said people were running outside and the cloud of smoke was already visible.
A Jan. 10, 2022 press release from developer Mill Creek Residential that announced the project groundbreaking, described Modera SouthPark as a luxury apartment community featuring 239 apartment homes in twin wood-frame buildings, with the first move-ins expected in spring 2024.
At 7740 and 7741 Liberty Row Drive, the complex was set to include studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments at an average 1,100 sq ft with fitness center, club rooms, pool, four distinct courtyards, golf simulator and parking garage.
The text of this article has been updated to reflect new information.