Fire at Uptown high-rise: WBTV Investigates missing safety tests

Records show testing of water lines was overdue, building owner claims tests were done.
Updated: Jul. 11, 2023 at 7:00 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - While looking into the fire at 550 South Tryon Street Monday night, the WBTV Investigates Team identified a problem raised in the building permit records. A note made by a Charlotte Water employee indicated that an important device for the fire sprinkler system had not been tested for years.

A the spokesperson for the company that owns the building now says those tests were completed, just not submitted to the City of Charlotte.

In the permit note, the city inspector claimed the backflow testing on various water lines, including one used for fire sprinklers, had not been tested since 2019. Backflow prevention is installed and tested to make sure that water from sprinklers or a fire hose doesn’t enter the city’s drinking water supply. City code requires building owners to test their backflow prevention devices once per year.

The records on the county permit page say the issue was discovered when the building’s owner, Wells Fargo, was getting permits to renovate the office space as it prepares to move thousands of employees into the tower by the end of 2023. The lack of testing resulted in Charlotte Water placing an “Occupancy Hold” on the building.

While 550 South Tryon used to be called the Duke Energy Center, the building has been owned by Wells Fargo’s corporate properties division for years.

A spokesperson for Wells Fargo sent a statement to WBTV saying that these tests were done but the paperwork never made it to inspectors.

“The safety and security of our customers, employees and properties is a top priority for us. We have conducted and passed these tests every year and are in compliance with city code,” the spokesperson wrote.

“This issue is related to a filing error and we will be contacting our subcontractor to reinforce with them the importance of the proper paperwork being filed.”

Charlotte has seen the impacts of failed backflow prevention before. In 1997, 40,000 households were told not to drink or use city water because of dangerous contaminants that entered the water supply. A fire truck sent 60 gallons of poisonous foam into Charlotte’s drinking water after firefighters plugged a fire truck into a hydrant without backflow equipment.

WBTV sent an email to Charlotte Water asking about the city’s practices and policies to make sure backflow testing is completed.

A spokesperson for the city said their records indicate that the backflow inspection for 550 S. Tryon St. was completed February 2023.

WBTV is digging deeper into these types of building inspection and safety issues after the deadly five-alarm fire at a South Park construction site in May.

The WBTV Investigates Team already revealed that required fire prevention plans aren’t being kept or reviewed by the Charlotte Fire Marshal’s Office. WBTV is also asking questions about how the fire prevention staff reviews and approves alarm and sprinkler plans after building records in South Park indicated the drawings submitted by the builder weren’t sufficient.

A report on construction fires compiled by national code experts concluded that building owners, contractors, code officials and insurance providers all need to take steps to make sure fire code is being properly followed.