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SouthPark fire: ‘Not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about it,’ firefighters say

CHARLOTTE — We’re approaching one year since a deadly fire at a construction site in Charlotte’s SouthPark neighborhood.

Anchor Erica Bryant spoke with some of the heroes who were right in the middle of it. It’s an interview that none of the firefighters really wanted to do, mainly because May 18, 2023 is a day that’s hard for them to think about. Yet they do — a lot.

“I’d say probably not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about it, or thought about something that happened during it that I could have done differently or done better,” Charlotte Fire Capt. Mike Watts said. “What-ifs is a big thing.”

Bryant asked the firefighters to take her back through the day.

“That fire specifically — and you could see it citywide pretty much. I mean wherever you were in the city at the time, you could see that fire,” Division Chief Dave Farnum said.

“Going on Park Road, like chief said, you could just see it,” Watts said. “Looked like a storm cloud, looked like all of SouthPark had a giant storm cloud over it.”

“I knew this was probably going to be the biggest fire I ever go to,” Watts said.

Calling a mayday

“Chief, talk to me about the responsibility you felt that day,” Bryant said.

“The weight of that responsibility is very, very great,” Farnum said.

“I was actually off on leave and so when the fire went to a second alarm, I responded from my house. I arrived around 45 minutes after initial dispatch and I think we’re at a fourth alarm at that time.”

That fire would go to a fifth alarm, becoming one of the worst in Charlotte’s history. Nearly 100 firefighters responded. Temperatures inside the under-construction apartment complex exceeded 2,000 degrees.

More than a dozen construction workers were rescued, but two others were trapped on the sixth floor and unable to make it to the one exit.

Capt. Watts was in charge of the effort to get them out. His team was six stories up when time began to run out.

“I’ve got a guy low on air, we’re disoriented and don’t know our way back out. We’re in zero visibility,” Watts said.

“That was the decision I made in my head. Like we’re going to have to do this,” he said.

“This” was the difficult decision he made to call a mayday.

“That’s a thing in the fire service in general, you know you don’t want to call the mayday,” he said. “But at that point, we’re six stories up, we’re completely surrounded.”

“We’re disoriented from where the stairs are, couldn’t find the stairs,” he said, adding, “Unbeknownst to us, we were completely surrounded by fire ... so that was kind of my moment of like, call the mayday.”

“It was a time that it needed to happen. And once we got out, we realized we were still 200-plus feet from the stairs, so if that help didn’t get started, then it was never going to make it.”

‘We heard them and then we couldn’t’

“How close did you get to the men?” Bryant asked.

“I don’t know how close. I know I could hear them,” Watts said.

“We’d gone over 300 feet from where we entered, and learning after the fact, that was the only way to get to the sixth floor. So we ran too low on air, we didn’t have enough obviously. Our air tanks are limited on the time we have. And crawling that entire portion, it’s going to consume more,” he said. “So I don’t know how close we got. I just know that at one point, we heard them and then we couldn’t hear them anymore.”

Demonte Sherrill and Reuben Holmes died in the fire. They were both working to build that apartment complex. Their supervisor had been on the phone with them trying to guide them to the one exit on that floor, but they told him the smoke was too thick.

State inspectors determined the exits were not set up to provide an easy way out for them.

Demonte Sherrill, just 30 years old, was a father of four. Reuben Holmes was 58 and had been working on the building for a month. He and Sherill were installing doors and windows.

It’s a tragedy Watts said he’ll never forget.

‘How do you cope?’

Bryant asked the firefighters how many of them have thought about the fire every day since it happened. A show of hands made its impact clear.

“How do you cope? Bryant asked.

“The department has resources and they’ve implemented more resources. But I would tell you, for me, it’s the group sitting behind me and the other guys in the station,” Capt. Jeff Bright said.

“The biggest thing is, are you ready emotionally if it goes the other direction? You don’t want it to get to that point and you train to not get to that point. But are you ready if it does get to that point?” he said.

It got to that point that day when Sherrill and Holmes died.

“As a company, you’re kind of that one that is looked upon to go and try to solve the problem,” Bright said.

Rescuing the crane worker

One of the most challenging parts of that day involved a worker trapped on a construction crane. He was several feet in the air while flames surrounded him below.

“Is the crane strong enough to withstand the temperatures and, you know, the things that he’s going through?” Bright asked when he spoke about the situation.

It all unfolded live on Channel 9. The firefighters described to Bryant how they rushed up their ladder truck and into the smoke to rescue that worker.

“It’s a real privilege to be able to work and lead the men and women, the Charlotte Fire Department, on a given day,” Farnum said.

Seven Charlotte firefighters of the 100 who were there that day helped with the rescue.

The rescue team included Watts, Farnum, and Bright. Jon Belcher, Billy Mitchell, Casey Russell and Kevin Murphy were also part of it.

Bright said he was the one talking with the crane operator.

“Asked him to stay calm and asked him to walk out onto the jib. And he was telling me it was too tight to, you know — everything was too hot, even to touch, so he couldn’t,” he said.

“Over the time frame of roughly 30 minutes or so of communicating with him, things changed and we were capable of going and getting him at that moment,” he said.

The operator was rescued from the blaze.

“And when his feet hit the ground, obviously, he was ready to go,” Bright said.

Relief all around. He was safe, as were more than a dozen other workers.

The emotional journey since that day hasn’t been easy, but Farnum said part of what helps is community support.

“Recognizing the job we do every day, the work we do every day,” he said. “We roll out, like I said, 300, 400 times a day and it’s always to go help somebody.”

(WATCH BELOW: Families of SouthPark construction fire victims file wrongful death lawsuit)