Charlotte fire inspector visited SouthPark site days before deadly fire
Record shows inspector visited site, CFD now claiming he was at ‘parking lot nearby.’
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A Charlotte Fire Department inspector visited the South Park construction site that caught fire in late May just seven days before the blaze.
Two apartment buildings were under construction when a spray foam insulation trailer caught fire in one of the building’s parking decks on May 18.
The five-alarm fire, one of the largest in Charlotte history, took two workers’ lives, Demonte Sherrill and Reuben Holmes.
WBTV obtained an internal CFD document where the inspector who went to the site documented his visit.
The inspector’s report indicates he was “on-site” at the construction project to conduct a sprinkler inspection at the second of two buildings under construction. The report indicates the sprinkler contractor was a “no-show.”
That record contradicts repeated statements from Charlotte Fire Marshal Kevin Miller that no one from the department ever visited the construction site.
The internal document also contradicts claims by Charlotte Fire officials that the department had no records related to the Liberty Row Drive construction project and had not been contacted by the contractor.
After the deadly fire, CFD announced the building that caught fire did not have a pre-fire plan nor a fire department connection for water, known as a standpipe, both of which are required by North Carolina Fire Code and both of which could have been grounds to stop the project by the fire inspector.
‘We never were on site’
Charlotte Fire Marshal Kevin Miller explicitly told WBTV no one from the fire department ever visited the site during an interview in July.
“Has the Charlotte Fire Department at all been contacted by the builder or the contractor for an inspection prior to the May 18th fire?” WBTV Investigative Reporter David Hodges asked.
“No, we have not,” Miller responded.
After several lines of questioning, Miller provided new details about building number 7740, the one adjacent to the structure that caught fire. According to Miller, a fire sprinkler contractor reached out to an inspector and scheduled an inspection.
“That was scheduled for an above ceiling to look at a sprinkler system,” Miller explained during the interview. “My inspector was cancelled by the general contractor. So, we had to reschedule that. So, we never were on site of either one of those facilities.”
Miller continued to double down by saying there are no records related to the site, either.
“We don’t have an inspection report. The only trail of any kind of communication is just between my inspector and the general contractor for the sprinkler system,” Miller said.
The record obtained by WBTV refutes that claim.
The inspector’s notes indicate even though the sprinkler contractor was not there, and the inspection was cancelled, he stayed on the site for thirty minutes talking with the general contractor about phasing the building for “partial occupancy, knox box location, scheduling, c/o process.”
In addition to the denials by Miller, CFD officials have refused to produce records in response to a detailed request.
WBTV requested fire department records related to the South Park site but four months later nothing has been produced by the city.
Instead, emails from Battalion Chief John Lipcsak claim the records exist with the county’s building department. Lipcsak also wrote there was no contact with the construction site contractor.
In a written statement, Lipcsak, the CFD spokesman, continued to dispute the existence of the inspector’s report, even after being presented the details of WBTV’s findings for this story.
“Charlotte Fire inspectors did not make inspections at 7740 or 7741 Liberty Row Dr. There was an above ceiling sprinkler inspection scheduled with VSC FIRE AND SECURITY. That meeting was canceled by VSC FIRE AND SECURITY company on May 10, 2023.”
The fire department included emails from VSC showing a request to cancel the inspection was sent to the fire department on May 10th. But the inspector’s notes indicate he went to the construction site anyway.
After WBTV sent another email requesting more details. This time, an unnamed CFD employee responded from the public information office account with new information, claiming the contractor was never on-site but spoke to the contractor in a nearby parking lot.
“To clarify, our inspector never made it to the jobsite for that inspection as it was cancelled prior to him reaching the site. It was scheduled for an onsite inspection, so therefore is labeled like that in the system, but he was never on site,” the email said.
“The inspector happened to be pulled over in a parking lot nearby, and the general contractor came over to chat with him on the topics the inspector noted in the document.”
WBTV Investigates: Fire and Failure
The WBTV Investigates Team has been analyzing videos, communications and records related to the South Park fire for months to uncover what went wrong and if the deaths of Demonte Sherrill and Reuben Holmes could have been prevented.
Many of the answers are found before firefighters ever arrived, even before the fire started.
WBTV obtained a copy of the Charlotte Fire Department’s investigative file, giving a first-hand look at what fire investigators know and a second-by-second account of what happened.
All of it has been put together in a special report: WBTV Investigates: Fire and Failure.
The hour-long special will premier online on Wednesday, September 27 and on-air at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, September 28.
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