CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The two construction workers who were missing after the historic five-alarm fire in Charlotte's South Park neighborhood broke out have died during the blaze, officials confirmed Friday.
Over 90 firefighters from the Charlotte Fire Department rescued 15 people from the construction site. The two men who died were unable to get out of the fire, officials said.
Firefighters were trying to reach the two trapped construction workers, but firefighters had to declare their own "mayday" during the rescue attempt.
"They were searching in an area obviously with limited visibility," Charlotte Fire Department Chief Reginald Johnson explained Friday.
Johnson said the firefighters could not see the trapped men but "were going by sound and trying to get to them."
When conditions changed, the rescuers transmitted their own distress call and another company of firefighters was dispatched to rescue the first group. Unfortunately, neither set of firefighters was able to locate the two trapped workers.
"We may be talking about more tragedy than ... we're talking about today," Johnson said Friday of the life-threatening situation his firefighters experienced Thursday.
Another company of firefighters battled dangerous flames in order to successfully rescue a worker trapped atop a construction crane. Before that worker could climb down, firefighters brought him "protective equipment" to help him manage the intense heat of the crane and its ladder during his descent.
The charred remains of the building are still deemed "unsafe" Friday and emergency personnel are on the scene monitoring hot spots.
Fire investigators have confirmed the fire began accidentally. The fire was started by a trailer that was spraying insulation material as part of the construction efforts.
The site of the fire had two twin buildings that were under construction. Firefighters did successfully extinguish small fires that had spread to the second building. That second building was largely undamaged during the five-alarm fire across the street.
A friend of one of the men who was killed in the fire, 30-year-old Demonte Sherrill, told WCNC Charlotte they fear he died when the building collapsed on top of him.
A construction supervisor told WCNC Charlotte one of his employees working on the site, 60-year-old Ruben Holmes, has not been seen or heard from since the fire. Both of the victims were officially identified by the Charlotte Fire Department on Tuesday.
Keith Suggs, who works for Prestige Windows and Doors and is the manager of both Sherrill and Holmes, said they were on-site to install doors. Suggs said he'd left the property about an hour before the fire broke out around 9 a.m.
On Friday, WCNC Charlotte received a statement from Alex Eyssen, the senior managing director of the Carolinas region for Florida-based Mill Creek Residential. Mill Creek was the company building the apartment complex. Eyssen's statement follows:
We are deeply saddened by the tragic passing of the two people who were missing in the construction fire that took place yesterday. This is the worst thing that can happen in our industry and there are no words that can express the emotions we are experiencing from this loss. Our thoughts are with the victims' loved ones.
Within an hour of starting, the fire was escalated to a five-alarm situation. Fire crews from across the Charlotte area were called in to assist the Charlotte Fire Department. The fire was visible for miles with large plumes of smoke filling the air all over Charlotte. One person near the fire said they started yelling out of their window but firefighters couldn't hear them.
"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 said. "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 the back of the building almost exploded pretty much."
Large clouds of smoke and flames shot hundreds of feet in the air from the area of Barclay Downs Drive and Fairview Road, near SouthPark Mall. Officials said firefighters were tasked with extinguishing the "very fast-moving" fire, which was over 2,000 degrees.
Fire officials said crews had several "maydays," which means crews were either trapped or had access issues when escaping. In total, 15 workers were rescued from the site and no firefighters were injured.
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