For 35 minutes, Capt. Jeff Bright talked to a man trapped 210 feet overhead, assuring him that he would help. As smoke and flames from a five-alarm fire in SouthPark intensified last week, Bright communicated with the man by radio, telling him that his rescue team from Charlotte Fire Station No. 10 would keep the crane he was trapped in sturdy and safe.
Even if he wasn’t sure they could.
The crane operator had helped rescue some of the 15 people from an apartment building under construction that had erupted into flames, and when he told Bright that he was down to his last bottle of water, the captain knew they were out of time. At any moment, the crane might topple over, bending to the fire they were trying to contain.
“Murph, it’s time to climb,” Bright said to firefighter Kevin Murphy.
“So, up we went,” Murphy said.
He shimmied up the crane, handed over some protective gear and came down with the crane operator close behind. And on Thursday, one week after that fire that killed two people, Bright said he met the crane operator in person at Charlotte Fire Station No. 10. Choking back tears as he described last week’s rescue, Bright said they’ve talked on the phone every day since. The crane operator has declined to speak to media.
“He’s as good as any man could be, knowing that he lost two people that he tried to save,” Bright said.
Firefighters from Firehouse 10 who helped rescue the crane operator, along with firefighters from Firehouse 16 who attempted to save two men trapped on the sixth floor of the structure under construction, spoke Thursday about what they endured in battling a blaze that longtime fire employees called the biggest they’d seen in their careers.
“Our folks are good at what they do and what they do — if it’s humanly and divinely possible — is save lives,” said Battalion Chief Shane Nantz. “That’s it in a nutshell. And what they did that day ... I’ve been doing this 29 years in this town. I’m a lifelong Charlottean. I’ve never seen what they did (before). You don’t see it every day.
“We risk it every day, but what they pulled off that day is something unheard of.”
The Charlotte Fire Department said the fire was accidental and started in a spray-foam insulation trailer at the construction site. So far investigators have not been able to determine what caused the initial spark.
‘Within a few minutes, everything changed’
After a 911 call at 9:02 a.m. on May 18 first reported the fire, Ladder 16 was among the first crews of firefighters on site. Judging by the smoke, fire chiefs quickly determined it was a petroleum-based fire.
“When we pulled up, we had smoke coming out of the building, not too terribly bad,” said Station No. 16 Capt. Brian Benson. “I knew what we had, we could handle.
“And within just a few minutes, everything changed.”
Firefighters were in the midst of attempting to rescue people they heard were trapped in the structure, when the smoke began to turn into flames.
“I knew it had gone from bad to deadly,” Benson said. “Deadly for, of course, whoever’s inside, but deadly for us, as well. And there was little to no time to make a decision other than to make sure everybody got out.”
Firefighter Chris McMillan was on the third floor attempting to reach anyone still inside when everything shifted and the building neared collapse. He saw both Sherrill and Holmes on the sixth floor above him, he said. He heard screaming.
“Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do,” he said. “The conditions of the building were just too much at that point. 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.”
The flames, which the fire department said reached up to 2,000 degrees, were so close that McMillan had to slide down the ladder stretching up to the third floor of the building. He was caught at the bottom by firefighter Sherrod Coates.
“There wasn’t a lot of time to go down it, so I had to slide as fast as possible,” said McMillan, who added he’d never attempted such a maneuver outside of training. “At that speed, I could have hit the bottom and hurt myself, so Coates was down there near the first floor on the ladder to catch me.”
Coates said it was the biggest fire he’d seen in 14 years on the force.
‘That man come down like a cat’
Meanwhile, the rescue crew from Station No. 10 was working to keep the crane operator safe as the intense heat from the fire threatened to weaken the metal of the entire crane structure.
Even as Bright assured the crane operator that they would bring him down, he worried.
“Our whole time we’re thinking that the crane is going to take significant heat and we’re going to watch it fall — on top of him being in a column of smoke or fire for an extended period of time,” Bright said.
A week later, still shaken, Bright paused.
“Twenty-eight years on the job, I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said, his voice shaking.
Bright took a deep breath before continuing: “To talk to him on the radio and him tell you that he’s down to his last bottle of water …”
Firefighters cooled the metal of the crane with water, and after scrapping the idea of a helicopter rescue because it was too dangerous, Murphy climbed up the crane to help the man down, providing protective gloves and emotional support. The firefighter had to squeeze into quarters so small that he couldn’t wear his full protective gear.
“We met up and down he went,” Murphy said matter-of-factly. “He wanted to get off that crane.”
Added Bright: “And that man come down like a cat. He was ready.”
One week later
A full week after the flames were extinguished, firefighters still were grappling with all they’d seen and endured in one of Charlotte’s biggest fires.
“It’s said when somebody dials 911, it’s the worst day of their life,” Nantz said. “I think anybody that saw the fire can attest that was somebody’s worst day of their life.”
Firefighters were both emotional and stoic Thursday when talking to media.
“It’s a rollercoaster,” said Benson, the Ladder 16 captain. “As you can imagine, a lot of questions in our heads. It is a continual process. I don’t think you ever get to the end of it, so it’s many different emotions.”
Said McMillan: “It was a very daunting experience. We did everything we could. By the grace of God, we rescued who we could. No firefighters died, and we prevented massive devastation to the SouthPark area.”
And Bright, who met with the crane operator he helped save, was simply thankful he had that chance.
“You don’t get the ability to talk to the guy that you helped save (often),” he said. “Probably the most important phone call that I’ve ever received was him.”