It felt like just another fire when Charlotte firefighter Mo Taylor headed into the west Charlotte uniform company Wednesday night at the front of the hose line. The 27-year-old could see heavy smoke and feel intense heat as he entered an interior room of Coyne Textile Services. The firefighters seemed to have found the source. They dropped to their knees to support the hose and aimed toward the ceiling.
But just as the water started to flow, the building rocked around them.
Propane tanks had exploded. Other booms followed.
The force knocked out the back of the building, sending the roof tumbling in the rear. A fireball rushed forward and out the front door.
Trapped inside, Taylor was surrounded by orange flames. “Above me. Beside me. Behind me. All around me,” he said. Solid fire.
It raged like a jet engine in his ears.
Taylor didn’t know that the temperatures were so hot that fire melted the nylon-coated hose he was carrying.
Or that it caused a thermal camera that normally works in up to 1,200-degree conditions to shut down — three separate times.
Or that it was charring his Kevlar-infused jacket that can withstand 1,000 degrees, burning dark the letters CH and TTE of Charlotte and singeing brown stains through the first layer.
He just knew that it was hot, he told the Observer Thursday from his room at Carolinas Medical Center. And in that moment he felt like he was all alone.
The trouble started with wads of soiled cloths stuffed in a container in the back of the CTS warehouse waiting to be shipped to a cleaning plant, Deputy Chief Jeff Dulin said Thursday.CTS provides uniforms and cloths to workers in industrial settings. The 12,320-square-foot building acts as a hub where dirty uniforms are gathered to be sent to cleaners, then stacked before they are returned clean to their clients.
The chemicals in those dirty cloths started to smolder in the weave of the fabric Wednesday afternoon, Dulin said. Eventually the cloth caught fire. Flames started to spread from the container to the warehouse.
CTS had no fire code violations, Dulin said. Authorities said the fire was accidental.
But the fire could have been growing slowly for at least an hour before Taylor and the other firefighters were called to the scene at 7:22 p.m. Almost all of CTS’s workers had left the Westport Road business hours earlier.
So the brewing heat had weakened the walls before the firefighters entered. It roasted two propane tanks used to power a forklift in the back warehouse. And the slow simmer primed the building for an explosive crescendo that would come tumbling down upon Taylor and eight of his colleagues within three minutes of their arrival.
Surrounded by flames, Taylor couldn’t see any of the other firefighters also trapped inside the sudden inferno.
But his mind clicked immediately to his training, running down a checklist.
Control your breathing. Calm down and relax. Work your way back out.
In the distance he could hear noises above the roaring fire, he said. It sounded like voices.
He dropped to his belly and inched his way back down along the hose, breathing through his airpack. He thought about his wife, his daughter, his family.
He thinks he moved about 10 feet until he reached the doorway he entered.
Then there were his brothers, the other firefighters waiting for him.
They extended a rescue line — a thin nylon-coated rope tied with knots and loops that they bring in to every fire. “Once I got to them,” he said, “I knew I was OK.”
Follow the line
Taylor could finally rise to his feet and stand. The worst of the fire hadn’t crept around the corner yet. Together, he and the other firefighters followed the line, feeling their way some 40 feet through the growing heat.
Taylor could feel that he was burned but didn’t know how badly. Once outside, the other firefighters helped him remove the equipment that saved his life.
When they pulled off his right glove, he said, his skin came off with it.
But the adrenaline was still coursing through him. He couldn’t feel much pain yet. It wasn’t until he was in the ambulance that the throbbing started. The medics dosed him with morphine.
The rest of the night — and into Thursday — was somewhat of a blur. He does remember having his wife, Jennifer, by his side in the emergency room. He does remember their 20-month-old daughter coming into his hospital room at CMC.
“Daddy’s got boo-boos,” his daughter, Bailey, said when she saw him. “Aw.”
He said he has second- and first-degree burns on his hands, ears, right shoulder and lower back. He likely won’t need skin grafts, he said, and hopes to leave the hospital today. His colleague, Jay Ogden, also had to go the hospital but was released Wednesday.
Taylor credits his training, equipment and fellow firefighters with saving his life. And the five-year veteran is looking forward to returning to Station 10 on Wilkinson Boulevard to be with the firefighters who never left him.
“Without a doubt, I can’t wait to get back on the truck,” he said. “That’s just who I am. That’s part of the job.”
He said it was a learning experience that reinforced a tenet of firefighting. “You’ve got to respect the fire,” he said.