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More than 90 firefighters 'heroically' rescued 15 workers from massive South Park fire

Officials said firefighters were tasked with extinguishing the "very fast-moving" fire, which had high-heat conditions of well over 2,000 degrees.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A five-alarm fire near the SouthPark Mall in south Charlotte broke out Thursday, causing a massive first responder presence to fight it.

Charlotte firefighters arrived within minutes of the first call, which was placed around 9 a.m. Thursday morning, according to the Charlotte Fire Department. Fire officials said over 90 firefighters fought the fire and rescued 15 workers from the burning construction site. One person had to be rescued after becoming trapped atop a crane. That person was later rescued by Charlotte firefighters and was transported by Medic with non-life-threatening injuries.

WCNC Charlotte crews could see large smoke clouds and flames shooting hundreds of feet into the air from the area of Barclay Downs Drive and Fairview Road as they were driving to the scene.

Officials said firefighters were tasked with extinguishing the "very fast-moving" fire, which had high-heat conditions of well over 2,000 degrees. 

Just ten minutes after the initial 911 call, fire crews on-scene declared a "second alarm," which starts the deployment of additional resources. By 9:20 a.m., the fire was upgraded to a 3-alarm. Within an hour, the call had been upgraded to a five-alarm, the highest and more severe classification.

LEARN MORE: What is a five-alarm fire?

Credit: Melissa Weber
A man stands atop a construction crane during the 5-alarm fire in south Charlotte on May 18, 2023.

Timeline of events

  • 9:00 a.m.: Initial 911 call reporting the fire
  • 9:10 a.m.: two-alarm fire declared
  • 9:20 a.m.: three-alarm fire declared
  • 9:30 a.m.: four-alarm fire declared
  • 9:56 a.m.: five-alarm fire declared

"As a construction site is open a lot of wood is exposed, the fire moved very rapidly," a Charlotte Fire Department said during a news conference. 

Credit: WCNC
A drone photo shows the side-by-side comparison between the burnt-out building in south Charlotte and its sister property across the street. Both buildings were wood frames.

Charlotte fire said while they were battling the blaze, they had several "Maydays," which means crews were either trapped or had access issues when escaping. 

"A Mayday is required when we have to send other firefighters to rescue those companies," the fire official explained.

Construction workers told the Charlotte Fire Department that there are still two construction workers that are unaccounted for. 

Anyone missing a loved one after the fire is asked to call 911 to speak with a police officer.

WATCH DRONE VIDEO: Huge fire burns near SouthPark Mall

Road closures

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is asking people to avoid the SouthPark area so their crews can respond to the fire efficiently. Drivers are being asked by CMPD to avoid Liberty Drive, Assembly Street, Barclay Downs Drive and Park South Drive until all flames are contained. By 6 p.m., Fairview Road was reopened during the congested evening commute. 

The Charlotte Mecklenburg School district advised that some school bus routes were impacted by the heavier-than-usual traffic and road closures.

Smoke visible for miles

The cloud of smoke from the fire was so thick it was registering on the radar. WCNC Charlotte Forecaster Larry Sprinkle said, due to the smoke, the air quality skyrocketed to the "very unhealthy" level. Sprinkle strongly encouraged everyone to stay inside because the dense smoke is in the air, and experts aren't aware yet what is in the smoke chemical-wise. 

RAISE YOUR WEATHER IQ: Why radar can see smoke

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Flood of 911 calls

A wireless emergency alert was sent out to smartphones in the area that said "CFD is battling a large fire in SouthPark, do not call 911 unless you have an emergency."

Officials urged people to only dial 911 for emergencies and to avoid the area.

Eyewitness accounts

"All I [saw] was, no daylight anymore, looked like it was dark, instead," one witness told WCNC Charlotte.

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Another witness spoke to Monreal about what happened when the fire started.

"The fire was immediately behind my desk, so initially, I was wondering why one side of the building was dark and the other side was light, so when I spun around, I saw the building was smoking," the witness described.

The witness said, at that point, they started taking video of the smoke.

"We watched it start to smoke gradually, and then we saw the smoke get bigger, and then, initially, the front of the building caught on fire," the witness described. 

EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT: What happened when the fire broke out

They noticed the side of the building was smoking, so they started yelling out of the window, but the firefighters couldn't hear them.

"Before we know it, the back of the building is smoking too, so they contained the front of the fire, but then the side started to burn, and then the side of the building fell on the parking garage, and then the back of the building almost exploded pretty much," the witness went on to explain. 

Their fire alarm started to go off in their building, so the office workers evacuated. She said everyone was safe thanks to that fire alarm. 

No word on what caused the fire, but there are reports a generator caused it.

A construction worker on the scene of the massive fire told WCNC Charlotte that he and his crew were working in the building before the massive blaze. He said the 7-story building was set to become a 239-unit luxury multifamily community, known as Modera SouthPark.

Location of Charlotte fire

According to its website, Modera SouthPark is a wood-frame, podium-style community consisting of twin buildings that make up more than 200 apartment homes. 

The first move-ins were slated for spring 2024.

A quick search shows the developers of the property, Mill Creek Residential, broke ground on the project back on January 11, 2022. The mid-rise community is located at 7740 and 7741 Liberty Row Drive, which is near SouthPark Mall. 

WCNC Charlotte, through public searches on Google, was able to determine SouthPark Charlotte Apartments LP owns the location located on Liberty Row Drive.

Five-alarm fires in Charlotte

Looking back at past five-alarm fires in Charlotte's history, a storage building was destroyed by a five-alarm fire in southwest Charlotte in July 2022.

LEARN MORE: What is a "five-alarm fire"

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Continuing coverage of five-alarm Charlotte fire

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