WBTV Investigates: Fire and Failure

Charlotte Fire Department’s internal files give exclusive look inside SouthPark fire

By David Hodges

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - When Demonte Sherrill first started streaming on Facebook Live, nothing immediately stood out as problematic.

He’s clearly at a construction site, wearing an orange shirt, yellow safety vest and hard hat. The background seems a little hazy. The only thing unusual is he’s holding a cloth over his mouth before he starts to talk.

“Yo, I’m at SouthPark right now. At work,” Sherrill said into the camera.

Demonte Sherrill goes live on Facebook at the SouthPark construction site that caught fire on...
Demonte Sherrill goes live on Facebook at the SouthPark construction site that caught fire on May 18.(Source: Charlotte Fire)

Reuben Holmes is standing behind him. They’re a two-man subcontractor team installing windows and doors at Modera SouthPark apartments on Liberty Row Drive. Sherrill swings the camera to face the other way, showing more of the construction site. It’s filled with smoke.

“The building on fire.”

He pulls the camera back to show himself. He’s standing on an unfinished balcony, leaning on the railing toward fresher air. They’re on the sixth floor.

Mill Creek Residential, one of the largest multifamily housing developers in the nation, was building two luxury apartments. The two men are in Building B.

“I can’t get out,” he said.

Sherrill starts yelling for help from the firefighters and construction workers staged around the building. He told Holmes they needed to stay on the terrace so first responders could spot them. The smoke is getting too thick to see through. The raging fire and cacophony of equipment below makes it hard to hear from the ground.

“Somebody send help. We’re in SouthPark.”

The 911 system was overloaded with callers reporting the black cloud rising above Charlotte’s skyline. Sherrill was streaming his situation so that someone could save them.

“Help!” he exclaimed in the livestream.

A crane operator lowered his hook to try and lift Sherrill and Holmes off the building. Firefighters climbed to the sixth floor attempting to rescue them. Every effort to save them came up short.

On May 18, 2023, Demonte Sherrill and Reuben Holmes died in one of the largest fires in Charlotte’s history.

Sherrill’s livestream providing the world a second-by-second account of his terror has been viewed more than 500,000 times.

“The last image I have of him was him basically begging for his life,” Demonte’s mom, Onita Sherrill, said.

Onita Sherrill watched television news coverage of the fire that morning while Demonte’s dad, Terry Campbell, rushed to the scene.

“I just felt like we were helpless parents that day,” Sherrill told WBTV. “We couldn’t save our child.”

The WBTV Investigates team has been digging into the circumstances of the SouthPark fire for months trying to determine if Sherrill and Holmes could have been saved. After WBTV obtained videos, pictures, interviews, and records from the Charlotte Fire Department’s file on the fire, the question changed.

Could their deaths have been prevented?

“That building should have been evacuated before the fire department even got there,” Raymond O’Brocki, fire service manager for the American Wood Council and national expert in construction site safety, told WBTV.

Using videos, radio transmissions, 911 calls and hundreds of other records from the fire department’s internal investigation file, WBTV constructed a visual timeline revealing what happened second-by-second during the fire. We then showed the video to O’Brocki and other experts in construction site and fire safety and asked them to analyze what went wrong.

Each expert who watched the videos from that day raised concerns about a failure to plan and prepare for a fire at the site. Footage from the scene reveals a chain-reaction of mistakes that led to the deadly blaze and chaotic evacuation that left Sherrill and Holmes behind.

Fire experts like O’Brocki tell WBTV what happened in Charlotte should be a lesson for the entire country. He said the failure to closely follow fire safety codes and regulations is putting workers, firefighters, and entire communities in danger.

“Nobody thinks they’re going to have a fire,” O’Brocki said.

According to a study from the National Fire Protection Association, fire departments respond to roughly 4,300 construction fires every year. On average 62 people are injured and five people die in construction site fires annually.

“They’ve never really seen a full building fire and how quickly things can go badly,” O’Brocki said.

The company building the apartment that caught fire, Mill Creek Residential, declined to answer questions for this story but issued the following statement:

“We continue to cooperate with state and local authorities as they investigate the circumstances that led to this fire. We take matters relating to safety very seriously and are forever mindful of the grief caused by this tragic incident. We will also continue to implement best practices to help avoid situations like this in the future. Beyond that, we don’t comment on matters that are, or potentially may be, the subject of litigation.”

It kept igniting

The fire started in the parking garage in a trailer used to make spray foam insulation. Notes from the CFD investigation file and pictures from the scene show the trailer was parked on the ramp between the first and second levels. The garage is made of concrete but there are five floors of wood frame above it.

Once the flames escape the concrete podium and reach the timber above, the fire is fueled uncontrollably. That makes time and quick decision-making critical factors according to O’Brocki.

The May 18 fire at the SouthPark construction site started in the parking garage in a trailer...
The May 18 fire at the SouthPark construction site started in the parking garage in a trailer used to make spray foam insulation.(Source: Charlotte Fire)

“The time was squandered by inaction or action that didn’t result in any kind of progress in establishing the fire,” O’Brocki said.

O’Brocki visited the SouthPark fire scene immediately after the fire and spoke with first responders about the conditions at the construction site and the trailer that ignited.

“They didn’t have anybody there monitoring it,” O’Brocki said.

“If they would have had somebody attending to that spray foam trailer while it was running, with an extinguisher of sufficient size, this would have been a non-issue,” O’Brocki said.

A group of experts analyzing construction fires for the International Code Council made a similar conclusion. The working group determined if a fire watch, fire safety plan and fire extinguishers had been immediately accessible at several construction fires caused by hot work like welding “those fires would have either been extinguished or held in check until the fire department arrived.”

A TikTok video taken by a construction worker at the site shows the trailer completely engulfed in flames with no one else around. The caption, in Spanish, says “the exact moment where it all started.”

Notes from the fire investigator and other records in the fire department file show the trailer had a generator and canisters of chemicals that combine to create foam insulation.

Arson detective Rob Klass with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department interviewed a worker on-site who responded to the fire. Travis Deese told Klass he was in the leasing office when he heard someone yelling “Fire! Fire! Fire!”

Deese said he started running toward the situation and crossed paths with the lead superintendent, Paul Groff.

“Paul Groff was in process of running to the situation with the fire extinguisher. I took his fire extinguisher. He grabbed another one,” Deese said.

The Charlotte Fire investigator’s notes say the fire was ‘discovered’ at 8:55 a.m. but both O’Brocki and Joseph Cervantes with Space Age Electronics say the evidence points to it starting before that.

“You have somebody playing basically telephone,” Cervantes said after listening to the interview.

“This fire probably happened closer to 8:45.”

Deese said when he got to the trailer it was engulfed in flames. He started spraying it with a fire extinguisher along with another worker named Keavin Reavis.

“Could not get it contained. It kept igniting,” Deese said.

Pictures taken after the fire show two fire extinguishers standing next to the burnt trailer where the fire started. Security cameras at the site also show Deese and Reavis dropping two extinguishers after they flee the fire and exit the parking garage.

Pictures taken after the fire show two fire extinguishers standing next to the burnt trailer...
Pictures taken after the fire show two fire extinguishers standing next to the burnt trailer where the fire started.(Source: Charlotte Fire)

While watching the video, O’Brocki said the opportunity of containing the fire had already passed and workers had no hope of putting out the fully engulfed trailer.

“You see those little fire extinguishers? Anybody with any training would know that you don’t have a prayer of putting out that fire,” O’Brocki said.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends only using a portable extinguisher when the fire is contained to a small area, not growing, everyone has exited the building, and the fire department has been called or is being called.

“They should have immediately reported it.”

The fire investigator notes say the attempts to put out the fire continued for seven to eight minutes before someone called 911.

We have a trailer on fire!

As the flames kept shooting out of the spray foam trailer packed with chemicals, site superintendent Paul Groff stepped away to call 911. Groff called 911 at 9:02, records show, to report a fire the experts we consulted estimate started at 8:45 and was discovered at 8:55.

“Too long. Seven minutes is way too long,” Cervantes told WBTV.

While Groff is waiting to be connected to the fire department, security cameras show construction workers standing outside the parking deck, peering and pointing toward the blaze.

“Nobody’s running. Nobody’s acting with a sense of urgency,” O’Brocki said.

O’Brocki and Cervantes say the inaction of construction workers and delayed notification to first responders is an obvious sign the construction site didn’t have a pre-fire plan, or train for a fire emergency. A pre-fire plan is designed to prevent construction fires and to prepare firefighters and workers for a fire. It’s required by the North Carolina Fire Code.

But the Charlotte Fire Department announced in June the construction site in SouthPark did not have such a plan.

“We have a trailer on fire! Inside the parking deck!” Groff tells the dispatcher.

He said they were evacuating the building. The dispatcher mishears him.

“I know you said everyone is evacuated, but just keep everybody away from it,” The dispatcher told Groff.

From the security camera you can see Deese and Reavis exit the building and drop their fire extinguishers. Groff follows them out while on the phone with the dispatcher.

“Alright. Keep everybody out of the building,” Groff confirmed.

Too long

The building was far from evacuated. As they dropped off their extinguishers, Deese and Reavis headed up the north stairwell — the only stairwell in the building — sounding the alarm by yelling at the workers to get out of the building.

“We ran every floor yelling ‘fire, fire, fire’ all the way to the top and to the roof,” Deese told the CMPD investigator.

As far as an evacuation plan goes, Cervantes says that’s not good enough. OSHA regulations require an alarm system, telephone system or siren to be installed at construction sites so employees and the fire department can be alerted to a fire.

“Yelling ‘fire, fire, fire’ is not an alarm system,” Cervantes said.

Cameras catch the first sign of employees evacuating at 9:05 a.m. Thirty-two workers start streaming out of the building from the north stair tower.

“Ten minutes after the fire is discovered, they should have been out by now,” O’Brocki said.

Cameras from every angle of the building show smoke pouring out of the structure.

“If they had been trained or directed to go in and start getting everybody out, everybody would have been standing in the parking lot by the time the fire department got there,” O’Brocki said.

OSHA requires an emergency action plan for construction sites that covers escape procedures and route assignments and a way to account for all employees after an evacuation.

The ICC working group determined “the requirement for a fire safety plan or designation of a fire prevention program superintendent was not being consistently followed by industry or enforced by code officials.”

“If they don’t have one person that’s solely focused on fire safety, then it falls through the cracks,” O’Brocki said.

Firefighters said there were anywhere from 100 to 150 construction workers standing outside the site when crews arrived to fight the fire, but they had no idea if all of them had made it out.

“Check those construction guys,” a fire commander says over the radio soon after arriving.

Radio communications between the fire department show how chaotic the situation is.

“Find out who the super is so we can make sure we have everybody accounted for.”

From the ground, people could hear Demonte Sherrill and Reuben Holmes calling for help. They were standing on a sixth-floor balcony on the south side of the building.

Sherrill and Holmes were on the south end of the building, a football field away from the only completed stair tower to the north. International fire code only requires one completed stairwell while the building is still under construction.

“It’s probably one of the reasons the two construction workers couldn’t get out,” O’Brocki said.

Within minutes of the first fire truck arriving, the building’s wood frame starts to catch. The flames are traveling up the elevator shaft and stair tower in the center of the building, between the two trapped workers and their only way out of the building.

“Those moments matter,” Cervantes said. “Five to six minutes that we’re watching here between the time that they notice that there was a bad situation going on and the time that they actually went to go alert workers.”

O’Brocki said the lack of preparation led to a chain reaction of problems. The result was Sherrill and Holmes trapped on the sixth floor.

“If you had a plan and trained on the plan, everybody would have known what to do,” he said.

O’Brocki said the lack of preparation he saw on the SouthPark site isn’t the exception. It’s the norm.

“I think you could walk onto almost any construction site and I would say you’d be lucky if one out of eight had a plan in place,” O’Brocki said.

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday

The first Charlotte firefighters pulled up on the south side of the construction site just four minutes after the 911 call. Captain Richard Benson’s Ladder 16 crew went into the parking garage to find the source of the fire.

When they were returning to the truck, construction workers told them two people were still inside the structure. Benson said the amount of smoke coming from the building wasn’t alarming at first.

“I knew what we had we could handle and within just a few minutes everything changed,” Benson said during a press conference held after the fire.

The fire department didn’t immediately know what was in the trailer that caught fire, nor that there was only one stairwell, nor what floor Sherrill and Holmes were on.

They also didn’t know there were no functioning standpipes, which are used to flow water throughout the building, which are required once the construction reaches 40 feet in height.

“This dramatically changes what the firefighters have to do and how much response they have to provide towards this fire,” Cervantes said.

“I think once they knew there was no standpipe then they had no shot,” O’Brocki said.

Within 15 minutes of the first fire crew arriving on scene, the command team ordered firefighters to evacuate the structure.

By that point, there had already been two efforts to rescue Sherrill and Holmes. Both came up short.

Witnesses say crane operator Quincy Morris used his 160-foot-tall machine to lift people from the building as the fire was growing. Cellphone video from the scene shows the smoke getting thicker as he tried to reach Sherrill and Holmes, making it nearly impossible to see the two workers from the crane cab or the ground.

Firefighter Chirs McMillan was part of the first team to respond to the scene. A small group used a ladder to scale to the third-floor pool deck beneath Sherrill and Holmes but by the time he made the climb the fire was rapidly accelerating.

“I spotted the victims and I heard the screaming,” McMillan said at the afternoon press conference. That’s when I noticed the conditions of the building started to change, a lot of smoke and heat was coming up to the third floor.”

From his location, McMillan was still more than 200 feet from the closest stairwell on the opposite side of the building. He slid down the ladder to safety and was caught by a fellow firefighter.

A little more than 10 minutes after the first firefighters got to the scene, smoke was billowing out of the building. Captain Michael Watts and two firefighters from Ladder One radioed to command that they might have found a way to reach Sherrill and Holmes on the sixth floor.

“We’ve had a maintenance worker get us to a stairwell. We’re headed to the sixth right now to try and team up with an individual lost,” Watts radioed to command.

The smoke obstructing the camera on the north side of the building cleared just enough to see an employee in an orange vest ushering three firefighters through the stairwell door.

At this stage of the fire, going into the structure is incredibly dangerous.

“The last thing they want is to put firefighters in there,” O’Brocki said.

But Sherill and Holmes are trapped inside.

“It’s forcing our firefighters and first responders to run into a structure that they would normally not entertain running into,” Cervantes said.

Watts wrote an account of their rescue attempt. He said conditions were fine at first when they reached the sixth floor. But each step they took down the corridor led them closer to the elevator shaft and stair tower, a chimney for the fire raging below. Conditions quickly worsened and they went from duck walking to crawling in order to stay below the smoke.

According to Watts’ narrative, they made it roughly a third of the way to Sherrill and Holmes when the evacuation command came over the radio. Watts kept crawling forward anyway.

He said they could hear someone calling for help. The building was at risk of collapsing and the fire spreading to other structures nearby. When Charlotte Fire command made the call to evacuate firefighters, they were acknowledging the apartment couldn’t be saved but the other buildings could be.

A security camera captures three firefighters on the scene of the May 18 SouthPark...
A security camera captures three firefighters on the scene of the May 18 SouthPark construction fire.(Source: Charlotte Fire)

Ladder trucks were getting in position to douse the building in water to contain the flames.

Time ran out on Watts and Ladder One.

“At this point, I knew we could not go any further, my crew and I banged our tools and yelled and waited a few seconds to see if the victim could come to us,” Watts wrote in his narrative.

“The voice sounded like they were close, but I knew that sound probably traveled far due to the contents of the structure and its construction. At this point I told my crew to head back and out.”

The smoke was so thick the firefighters missed the stair entrance while they were backtracking. Watts wrote they were searching for the stairs and used their flashlights to bust through the walls in case they needed to jump out.

He called for help over the radio.

“MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY! Ladder 1, three stuck on the sixth floor. Stairwell towards the entrance. Running low on air. Need help getting out.”

The trapped firefighters started throwing objects at the trucks below to try and get attention for a rescue. Eventually, they found the stairs and got off the site safely.

Two lives lost

Demonte Sherrill and Reuben Holmes died in the fire. Experts say it had nothing to do with the rescue attempts coming up short. Instead, they say it was the lack of preparation before the fire even started.

Cervantes believes if the construction site had been following safety best practices and building and fire codes, the two men could have been saved.

“100 percent, not a doubt in my mind,” Cervantes said of whether Sherrill and Holmes could have made it out safely had proper safety procedures been followed.

“No standpipe, no evacuation plan, the gross delay in notification, the gross delay in evacuation, these all factored into why two people were killed and the building was lost,” O’Brocki said.

Both O’Brocki and Cervantes claim there’s a lack of fire safety adherence that has seeped into construction culture. They say there’s no magic bullet to fix the problem. It just requires construction sites to prioritize safety and follow codes and regulations.

Demonte Sherrill’s parents aren’t fire code experts. They just know their son and his co-worker were trapped in a building and died during the fire.

“Everything should be properly checked before any person is allowed to do anything,” Onita Sherrill said.

“I mean, we have to take tests to get driver’s licenses. So why not make sure all the safety precautions are there for things like this.”