Investigators have begun what will likely be a lengthy investigation into a March 7, 2018, fire in an apartment building that was under construction in downtown Denver. The massive blaze sent six people to the hospital, including a firefighter, and ultimately took the lives of two construction workers who were working in the building at the time. It was days before emergency personnel were able to locate the deceased men.
One avenue that investigators will explore is whether contractors had hired under-the-table workers for the job and whether those involved with the project were aware of how many people were working on the site at the time of the deadly fire.
Officials have not given a cause for the Denver construction fire, but gas lines, electric wiring, and heat or sparks from construction equipment on the site are all under consideration in the investigation. The deadly structure fire serves as a reminder of the dangers of improper oversight in construction zones.
Approximately 50 Workers Were on Site When Apartment Building Fire Broke Out
The fire broke out at a building in the area of 18th Street and Emerson Street in downtown Denver’s North Capitol Hill neighborhood. The five-story building, an under-construction apartment building that was slated to be called Emerson Place Apartments, was scheduled for completion later this year.
Officials believe the fire started on the third floor of the building, with initial reports of the blaze coming from construction workers on that floor at approximately 12:09 p.m. Approximately 100 firefighters sped to the scene, where they immediately went to work extinguishing the blaze and preventing the damage from spreading to surrounding buildings.
Inside the building, approximately 50 construction workers looked for escape routes, according to Denver Fire Capt. Greg Pixley. Witnesses say they heard the workers screaming and the sound of explosions from the building. Images captured at the site show some workers climbing out of second and third story windows and jumping to the ground below to free themselves from the fire, causing other injuries in the process.
Heat Damaged Nearby Cars and Buildings While Large Embers Fell in North Capitol Hill
The heat from the Denver construction fire was catastrophic, with the soon-to-be Emerson Place Apartments destroyed, and dozens of surrounding commercial and residential buildings sustaining significant damage.
Forty cars in a parking lot adjacent to the Emerson Place Apartments also sustained damage from the heat, which was intense enough to melt tires and break windshields. Heat from the burning building was felt a block away, and palm-sized chunks of ash fell from the sky on neighboring streets, while huge billowing clouds of black smoke were visible across the Denver skyline.
Firefighters battled the blaze for about half an hour before they got it under control. They also had to extinguish fires on the roofs of six buildings in the area, which were started by embers from the original structure fire. The fire department faced other challenges in the fight, too, with three fire engines damaged from heat.
An entire neighboring block of residents was still not allowed to return to their homes as of Monday, March 12, 2018. They would not be allowed back until the power was returned to the area and safety inspections were complete. City officials said the residents could be kept under evacuation for weeks.
Witnesses Ran to the Aid of Victims in Emerson Place Apartment Fire
There were two fatalities and six people (including a firefighter) injured in the fire, but fire officials said the outcome could have been much worse if witnesses and fellow construction workers hadn’t taken quick action to aid those in need.
Mitchell Longman was among those who saw the fire and rushed to help.
“Reality hit in, and all of a sudden, we were saving someone,” Longman told Fox31 Denver. Longman worked with other witnesses to get a worker free from the site of the burning building and the dangerous smoke he had been inhaling.
“It was way hot,” Longman recounted. “My lungs are even messed up from the hot air.”
Investigations and Allegations Surround the Denver Construction Fire
Ice conditions from water used to fight the fire that had frozen overnight delayed the start of the investigation. Investigators stressed many times that they would be slow and methodical in the investigation, taking as long as was needed to determine the details of the fire.
Herb Gibson is the Denver area director for the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and spoke to the media about the federal investigation that is happening, but which will likely take months.
“I can tell you that we are working with the fire department investigating this fire and looking at (the contractors’) overall safety and health program,” Gibson said to the Denver Post.
Concerns have already been raised about the safety of the Emerson Place Apartments building site by the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters who were among those who came to the scene following the fire.
“When I approached the foreman for United Builders Service, I asked him how many workers he had on his crew. He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I don’t know’,” Mark Thompson, a union special representative, said at a rally in the days after the fire. “This is unacceptable. We pray there are no other workers missing, but how can the professionals be certain without an accurate count to start with?”
The union has been scrutinizing the site’s safety protocols and has said that at least one subcontractor at the building was hiring under-the-table workers.
Vertix Builders Denies Under-The-Table Claims
United Builders Service, who was accused of hiring under-the-table workers, has not commented on the allegations against them, but Vertix Builders Inc., who is the general contractor for the Emerson Place Apartments, said the claims were “patently false.”
Vertix Builders is deeply saddened by the loss of life and injuries resulting from the fire at the Emerson Place Apartments Project in Denver on March 7th. Our hearts go out to all of those who were involved, as well as to their families.