CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Firefighters who rushed into a burning apartment building in Charlotte's South Park area on May 18 said there was nothing they could do to rescue two men who died in the huge fire.
Over 90 firefighters rescued 15 people from the burning building. Two workers were unable to get out of the fire and died, officials confirmed. The men were identified as Demonte Sherrill and Ruben Holmes. Firefighters were trying to reach them but had to declare their own "mayday," Chief Reginald Johnson explained last week, meaning another company of firefighters was sent into the building to rescue the first group.
First responders said the situation quickly changed after arriving on the scene.
"Looking at the type of smoke coming out of the structure, the smoke itself was definitely a petroleum-based fire," Battalion Chief Tim Brown said. "We knew that there was going to be some petroleum-based fire and it was going to be a very dangerous situation."
Brown was the first chief to respond to the fire before it escalated to a five-alarm fire. He explained the biggest task at first was simply trying to get what they thought was a basic fire under control.
Capt. Benson said the fire didn't appear to be "terribly bad" when his team arrived. It was just moments later that he and the others realized this wasn't a typical firefighting operation.
"I knew what we had we could handle and within just a few minutes everything changed," Benson said. "Smoke got heavier, reports of people trapped in the building, so me and my crew transitioned from firefighting roles to a rescue role."
Multiple firefighters who have been on the force for over 10 years said the South Park fire was the biggest fire they've encountered in their careers.
"Initially it was light smoke, an everyday type of fire to all mayhem broke out," one firefighter said.
Firefighter McMillan said he saw the two victims inside the burning building but he was unable to rescue them before his own life was at risk.
"Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do. The conditions of the building were just too much at that point," McMillan said. "They worsened and I had to escape. The second floor was engulfed in flames and smoke and I was barely able to escape in time."
McMillan said the building was starting to collapse, giving him a view of the victims on the sixth floor from three floors below.
"We did everything we could," he said. "By the grace of God we rescued who we could ... When I got up on the third floor I spotted the victims and I heard the screaming. That's when I noticed the conditions of the building started to change. A lot of smoke was coming up, meaning that the fire was traveling up. At that point, I knew my life was in danger."
Capt. Jeff Bright spoke at length about the dramatic rescue of a crane operator during the fire. Bright said crews communicated with the man for over 30 minutes, and at one point the man was down to his last bottle of water and feared for his life. Bright was overcome with emotion at times, stopping himself to regain his composure.
"I spoke with him on a radio for roughly 35 minutes ensuring him that we'd come get him," Bright said.
Firefighters were able to give the crane operator some protective clothing and he was able to escape down a ladder. Bright said firefighters used a significant amount of resources to keep the crane cool, knowing the extreme heat could lead to catastrophe.
"Our whole time we're thinking that the crane is taking significant heat and we're going to watch it fall, on top of him being in a column of smoke and fire, but 28 years on the job I've never seen anything like that. To talk to him on the radio and him tell you that he's down to his last bottle of water ..."
Some of the firefighters are struggling to cope with the loss of life in the fire and asked the Charlotte community to pray for the first responders dealing with those emotions.
"They risked right up to the point where McMillan has to physically bail out of a third floor onto a ladder, uncontrolled sliding down just to save his own life," one Charlotte Fire official said. "We push ourselves as far as we physically can and what the gear will allow because we care. I don't want that ever to get lost."
Keith Suggs, a supervisor for Prestige Windows and Doors, managed both Sherrill and Holmes. He said both men were on-site to install doors. Suggs said he left the property about an hour before the fire broke out around 9 a.m.
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. Flames and smoke were visible for miles with large plumes of smoke filling the air over Charlotte.
The Charlotte Fire Department's investigation determined the fire was started when an insulation foam sprayer caught fire on the ground floor. Investigators said the fire was accidental.
Community leaders led a moment of silence at SouthPark After 5 Thursday evening to honor the heroes and victims of the SouthPark fire. Mayor Vi Lyles and City Councilman Tariq Bokhari attended the ceremony, as well as first responders from Charlotte Fire, Medic and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police.
Last week, SouthPark After 5 was canceled due to the tragedy, but Adam Rhew with SouthPark Community Partners said there's a bigger goal this week.
"We wanted to have that moment, bring those first responders out here, see the community support," Rhew said.
There was a banner at the entrance. Hundreds of people signed the banner thanking the first responders for their service.
Jennifer Coat's husband is at Charlotte Fire Station 16 and remembers the day of the fire like it was yesterday. She said it was a scary day, but since then the community has supported her husband and fellow firefighters more than she could have imagined.
“People are showing their gratitude and it makes me very proud of them," Coat said.
Thursday's ceremony recognized the first 30 firefighters on the initial call, including stations 2, 12, 14 and 16, plus Rescue 10, battalion chiefs 1 and 5 and Deputy Chief Samuel Jones.