‘Chaotic scene’: Witnesses describe blaze at SouthPark construction site

CHARLOTTE — A deadly fire broke out at an apartment complex construction site Thursday morning, forcing dozens of people in the area to evacuate.


Channel 9′s Anthony Kustura described the scene on Liberty Row Drive as a “massive response from first responders that I’ve never seen before.”

(PHOTOS: Massive fire breaks out in SouthPark area of Charlotte)

The fire began around 9:15 a.m. Thursday at an apartment complex that was under construction.

Kustura saw first responders evacuating people from nearby buildings. He spoke to two men who were leaving the building they were working in and said they saw the fire erupt.

Mark and Bruce said they were on the fifth floor of their insurance building when they saw smoke.

“I said boy, that looks like it could be something serious,” they said.

They said they went outside to check it out when it ignited.

They said a worker came out and said the fire happened when crews were putting in foam insulation, and said the diesel engine being used to push the foam to the next floor was in a parking garage. They said the engine caught fire but they thought it would be contained since the structure was concrete.

“But it clearly spread to the rest of the building and demolished it,” the pair said.

“Just happy we evacuated and happy the people around here -- all the EMS people -- got us out of here... thankful for them,” they added.

One woman said she was evacuated from a banking building nearby. She grabbed as much as she could before she left.

A worker in the area told reporter Joe Bruno two other people were working on the windows when the fire broke out. The worker told Bruno his boss told him the fire started from a generator.

Edraz Villeda told Bruno he was on the sixth floor when the fire happened. He said as soon as he saw the fire, he ran.

Charlotte Fire upgraded their response to the blaze to four alarms just before 11 a.m. Thursday.

Construction worker Demonte Sherrill, 30, died in the blaze, family said, and another worker was unaccounted for Thursday night.

Paramedics said one person was taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. They said two more people were evaluated but were not transported.

Crews were able to rescue a trapped crane operator from the flames.

Several were also at Dilworth scaffolding collapse

Several workers told reporter Hannah Goetz they were also working at the Dilworth construction site during the deadly scaffolding collapse back in January. They told Goetz it was difficult to be on site of the fire Thursday.

One of the workers said he was the first of his crew to see the fire. He said it started on the first floor of the building, and said he tried to extinguish it. When he was unable to, he said he started running and screaming and cleared his crew from the building.

That worker told Goetz there could have been dozens of crews inside when the fire began; Bruno learned at least 40 to 60 people could have been working at the site.

Bruno spoke to workers who said firefighters tried to use a basket to rescue the two people working on the windows, but the smoke was too thick to do so.

Those witnesses do not know how those two people are doing because they haven’t been able to get in contact with them, but they’re praying for the best.

‘Get out of your room’

A woman who lives nearby described what happened as soon as the fire broke out.

“I hear this voice saying leave the rooms now,” Sherrill Okyol said. “I’ve got my nightgown on, I’m not ready for anything. But they said ‘get out of your room.’ I have not heard those words very often and so I thought, ‘I don’t need to get my clothes so much as I need to get out.”

Okyol was describing the emergency alert she heard at her senior living community. Stan Brookshire heard the same message.

“Everybody needs to get out of this building right now,” he said. “I picked up my laptop and my calendar.”

When they reached the lobby, they saw why -- Charlotte firefighters were battling the massive blaze just a stone’s throw from their front doors.

“From the lobby, the view of the fire was magnificent, if you wanted a magnificent fire. It was awful,” Okyol said.

The roaring fire and thick black smoke enveloped their community as they watched the building across the street collapse.

“The rooms weren’t safe places, the lobby wasn’t a safe place,” Okyol said.

Neighbors and residents waited outside, worried about whether the flames would spread to their homes too.

“We’ve just been hoping that it doesn’t get over here to where we are, it’s the biggest fire I’ve seen in my whole life,” Brookshire said.

A fire so destructive that a few hours after it started, not much was left standing.

“It was scary,” Okyol said. “I’ve been in scary places, like most people my age have been. This was of a different order, the fire was bigger than anything I’ve ever seen.”

Charlotte Fire said it put out a number of rooftop fires at neighboring buildings.

Check back for updates, and watch us on air too.

(RELATED: Massive fire breaks out in SouthPark area of Charlotte)

Hannah Goetz

Hannah Goetz, wsoctv.com

Hannah is a reporter for WSOC-TV.

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