Red flags at South Park building site didn’t halt construction before fire

Records show fire plans didn’t meet required standards while construction continued.
Investigative Reporter David Hodges has found city fire officials raised red flags about the site's fire safety.
Updated: Jul. 10, 2023 at 6:10 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A WBTV Investigation into what led up to the deadly South Park fire is revealing more problems with fire prevention planning that doesn’t meet industry best standards. Records reviewed by WBTV show the fire marshal’s office placed three “Fire Holds” on the apartment site because the of shortcomings with plans for fire alarms and sprinkler systems.

The Charlotte Fire Department has still not provided WBTV with copies of the building fire plans and notes on the construction site, even though a spokesperson for the department claims the fire plans in question were approved earlier this year.

A WBTV Investigation from last week already revealed fire prevention plans designed to prevent construction fires and prepare firefighters, called a pre-fire plan, are not being kept or approved by the Charlotte Fire Department.

Charlotte Firefighter Association Local 660 President Tom Brewer told WBTV the lack of preparation from both the builder and Charlotte Fire is concerning.

“Those codes are written in blood,” Brewer said.

“Every fire code we have or any kind of like regulation we have is usually because someone passed away or someone died.”

Construction sites need permits and plans to move forward. Those plans cover everything from the building to plumbing to fire protection. They have to be reviewed and approved by various agencies, including Charlotte Fire.

Notes from Charlotte Fire’s plan reviewers reveal several fire holds were applied to the construction site because the plan drawings for alarms and sprinklers were not specific to the apartment site. Those notes are kept on a publicly accessible website through Mecklenburg County. The most recent fire hold was October 7th.

The notes request the builder to email updated drawings directly to the Charlotte Fire Department.

But in an email to WBTV a spokesperson for Charlotte Fire said they didn’t receive any emails from the developer to the address listed in the review notes. The spokesperson then emailed WBTV one week later saying the fire plans were approved in January.

On June 28th, WBTV requested copies of inspection and review notes stored by Charlotte Fire. So far, the department has not produced any records.

WBTV received a copy of fire protection plans through a records request with Mecklenburg County. Those plans are missing details required by North Carolina fire code and it’s unclear when they were submitted.

That raises more questions about a claim made by Charlotte Fire Department in a press release sent on June 6th which stated “the Charlotte Fire Marshal’s office hadn’t received communication from the contractor/builder before May 18, 2023, so no fire inspection had been performed.”

In the same press release, Charotte Fire called out the builder for not constructing a standpipe and not being notified once the building surpassed 40 feet in height. Fire plan review notes for the South Park Building from 2021 show several notes about the plans for a standpipe in the building.

In an email a Charlotte Fire spokesperson wrote “CFD allows for the deferral of shop drawings for fire alarms and sprinkler systems to be submitted to CFD after building permits are issued.”

Similarly, a spokesperson for Mecklenburg County said proper procedures were followed.

“These holds are not used to prevent plan approval – they are used to prevent certificates of occupancy from being issued at the conclusion of construction without signoff from the agency that placed the hold, in this case, Charlotte Fire,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

In 2014, a roundtable of fire experts gave recommendations on best practices to prevent fires in buildings under construction.

One of the recommendations was for building departments to only issue construction permits after fire safety plans have been submitted and approved by the fire chief.

Brewer says that a similar review is needed in Charlotte to help find solutions and protect people.

“I think key would be a third-party investigation, not to assign blame, but to make it a teachable moment and to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Brewer said.

WBTV has requested interviews with Charlotte’s Fire Chief and Fire Marshal but the department has not made either available.