Savannah city officials say no injuries reported in Eastern Wharf Project fire

Emergency crews responded to a massive fire at the Eastern Wharf Project site in Savannah.
Emergency crews responded to a massive fire at the Eastern Wharf Project site in Savannah.(WTOC)
Published: Feb. 28, 2020 at 5:52 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 28, 2020 at 5:53 AM EST
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Emergency crews responded to a massive fire at the Eastern Wharf Project construction site in downtown Savannah on Thursday.

The Savannah Fire Department said the fire is believed to have started on the 5th floor. Construction workers first noticed smoke in the building and alerted 911.

According to officials with the City of Savannah, no injuries have been reported from the fire.

Savannah Fire’s Chief was quick to mention the pure exhaustion that is impacting his crews who have been at the scene for hours. He says the firefighters are taking required breaks and being constantly monitored to keep them safe.

They’ve also called in for support from surrounding departments in Pooler and Garden City as well as calling in extra firefighters who were scheduled to be off.

“Now the biggest problem that we faced today is this is what we call a ‘wind-driven fire.’ So the wind is out of the west to the east and has created a lot of issues for us. We did have crews that tried to make an interior attack inside the building and they were not able to do so. With the wind, the fire grew so rapidly,” said Savannah Fire Chief Derik Minard.

“Right now all we’re doing is providing EMS support for all the firefighters that are here on scene,” said Chatham County EMS Chief Bengi Cowart. “We arrived shortly after Savannah Fire to provide that.”

The Truman Parkway is now open. General McIntosh Boulevard is closed. East Broad Street at East Bay Street is closed for eastbound traffic only. Broughton Street at East Broad Street is closed for northbound traffic only. President Street at Randolph Street is closed for northbound traffic only. This closures are expected to last into the evening.

Eastern Wharf and Choate Construction Company released a joint statement on Thursday’s fire:

“Our number one priority is the safety of team members and individuals working on site. We are thankful to report that everyone is safe and accounted for. We want to thank all of the first responders, especially the Savannah Fire Department and the Savannah Police Department, for their swift, coordinated and continued efforts today. Savannah is fortunate to have a top-rated fire department that has been proactively working with the development team at Eastern Wharf and Choate Construction to conduct visits and safety reviews. The Choate project team also regularly conducts evacuation drills and other safety checks in conjunction with their OSHA Strategic Partnership Program. These proactive measures and coordinated visits paid off today as the Savannah Fire Department knew exactly where set up to quickly fight this fire. While today was a serious event, thanks to the diligence and exceptional training of this community’s first responders we were able to avoid serious injury and contain a potentially dangerous situation.”

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson was quick to praise the hard work by first responders when he addressed the media. Highlighting their response to the scene and bravery in the face of massive flames.

At a time when the Mayor could have focused on the very obvious negatives of the loss of this development he remained positive, instead applauding our local first responders and the construction workers who initially called 911.

The Mayor however also issued a warning to anyone who is considering trying to get a closer look at the building even after it seems like the danger is gone.

“My message would be don’t be dumb. Don’t do foolish things. The fact of the matter is, while we were watching, some portions of it fell down. It’s still an active site. It will be an active investigative site for a while,” he said.

The mayor adding that they will have police patrolling the scene to help dissuade people from getting too close to the charred structure.

The Savannah City Council was set to meet at 4 p.m. and again at 6 p.m. They’re sharing their reaction to the massive fire.

“You look at that and you critique it and we look at it from two different aspects," said District 6 Alderman Kurtis Purtee. "You look at it from a reactive stage, what did we do, what could we do better. And then a proactive, what could we do to prevent something like this, what measures can we take to make sure that if it does happen, our response times are better, our resources are better outlined out there. So yeah, we’re going to take something like this and critique it and look at it.”

“You saw a rapid response from multiple different units, our police department, of course our fire department and even Marine 1, our fire boat, was able to respond as well. So that’s still proving active service, and I’m just so proud of our first responders,” said District 4 Alderman Nick Palumbo.

After talking with some construction crew members it seems as though most of them were at lunch when it happened. A Staffzone Sales Manager and her nine crew members were reunited and tears were shed when everyone was accounted for.

“No words can describe what I just felt," said Carmon Kirk. "Just seeing all of them. Everyone’s fine. They’re walking, talking, hugged them. It was an amazing feeling.”

According to a Marriott Savannah Riverfront employee, that hotel is not being evacuated. The employee states that the smoke is blowing away from that hotel.

Timeline of the fire:

We have been able to chronicle the progression of this massive, three-alarm fire, recording continuously from the ground-level and sky with our drone and skycams.

It was around 12:30 p.m. that our Chief Photographer, Jonathan Godwin, spotted heavy smoke while getting some drone video on Hutchinson Island.

The plume continued to grow, and about 20 minutes later, our crews were seeing flames and smoke on the ground at the scene.

We turned our Downtown Skycam toward the blaze.

Thirty minutes after first spotting the flames, we were live on air working to get you answers.

Another hour later, the City of Savannah held a news conference to give us what details they had at the time.

By 4 p.m., emergency crews had a well-established perimeter, attacking the flames with numerous streams of fast-flowing water. Still, firefighters were battling the elements.

The setting sun gave our drone just enough light to capture images, a birds-eye view showing just how destructive this fire was at the Eastern Wharf project site.

Around 10:30 p.m., Savannah Fire reported the fire had been contained and crews were continuing to bring it under control.

There was no shortage of curious onlookers as crowds surrounded the area of the fire trying to get a closer look. People were is a state of shock and awe. Many people seeing the smoke. One couple from as far as the Savannah Wildlife Refuge coming into town to see it for themselves.

One man who had been right up next to the building says for him it wasn’t just about seeing it for himself as he actually knows the developer.

“I know the company in Atlanta that owns the building and it just so happens I was in Savannah for the day wandering around and saw the smoke over by Oglethorpe Mall and got a message that it was the Eastern Wharf that was on fire," said Jeff Quinn. "So I came down here and took a few pictures for them, shot some video to send back up to Atlanta.”

One SCAD student even telling us he walked over a mile just to see what had happened.

“It was huge. I was here for probably 15 minutes. I saw it going from white clouds of smoke to fire blazes like taller than the crane and I didn’t realize how fast it was spreading, how fast it was moving all around. It was intense,” said SCAD student Charlie Card.

Patrick Malloy Communities, developer of Eastern Wharf’s Upper East River residences, adjacent to the project site where the fire broke out released the following statement:

“Officials at Upper East River have been in touch with all current Upper East River residents, sales team members, and development and construction teams and they can report all are safe. Furthermore, there has been no damage to any Upper East River property or homes at this time. We are grateful for the Savannah area Fire and Rescue Departments, firefighters, and public safety officers for their current efforts. We know this is still an active investigative fire scene and are hopeful there will not be any further damage to the area.”

Latest city inspections:

We went through the city’s inspection schedule. Inspectors have been on that property nearly a dozen times in the last two weeks.

That includes two planned trips Thursday for a mechanical inspection and an inspection of the building frame. Both were cancelled - presumably due to the fire.

Of the 10 inspections we found, five of them were mechanical. City inspection crews made at least two trips to the site this week to look at the plumbing and framing.

We are working to get more information on these inspection reports.

This is an area that has long been sought after by developers because of its proximity to downtown and the waterfront views of the Savannah River.

It’s a $600 million mixed-use development with plans for residences, offices, a hotel, retail and a park.

  • In September 2017 a joint venture bought the 57 acre site.
  • In August 2018 the Savannah City Council approved the project and kicked in $33 million in public bond money to pay for 700 spaces of public parking.
  • In October 2018 construction crews broke ground of the first phase. Several of the residential townhomes have been completed. It also includes retail, a hotel, office and 306 luxury apartments, which is the 5-story structure where the fire began this afternoon.
  • In May 2019 developers told WTOC the second phase would soon begin to include a hotel and an 80,000 square foot office building.

The apartment building that caught fire had a move-in date set for June. It’s unclear what Thursday’s fire does to that timeline. We’ve called Eastern Wharf for comment and a spokesperson said at this time they’re focused on what happened and the safety of the site.

First responders:

The 200 Club of the Coastal Empire held their 2020 Valor Awards Thursday night. Notably missing from the crowd was Savannah Fire Chief Derik Minard.

Instead, Chief Minard had been fighting the fire alongside his men Thursday. The first responders showed they are always ready to answer when duty calls.

Savannah Fire had as many as 20 units on the scene throughout the day on Thursday.

“We have a lot of crews working out here to fight this fire. It looks like we’re starting to make some headway. The Fire Chief himself is actually suited up with his crews and fighting the fire,” said City of Savannah Communications Director Nick Zoller.

Within one minute of being dispatched, the Savannah Fire Department was on the scene of the fire at the Eastern Wharf construction site.

“Our crews are exhausted. We’ve been out here since noon and they’ve been at it the entire time," said Chief Minard.

Many firefighters who were off-duty came in to help and Savannah Police were on the scene throughout the day.

“I can not tell you how proud I am, of not only our professional firefighters, but our police department who is on site who established a firm perimeter in an unusual traffic pattern. How proud we are of our city utility folks, who are on site and provided help, of our public information officers from the city, police, and fire who coordinated to make sure information got out to who it needed to get out to," said Mayor Van Johnson.

Chatham County Fire, Pooler Fire, Garden City’s Fire Department and Chatham Emergency Management helped to add relief for Savannah Fire. The helicopter was circling above in the crisp blue afternoon sky that was clouded by smoke, helping to point out any hot spots.

Just outside the police barrier, the annual Valor Awards honoring the Coastal Empire’s first responders. The efforts by their colleagues were not unnoticed.

“We have a significant situation happening just across the street. It’s a significant, significant fire, so we have a lot of first responders out there right now, I’m sure heroic acts of valor right now," said 200 Club President Mark Dana.

The 2020 fire department recipient of the 200 Club’s Valor Awards, Advanced Firefighter Andew Lee of Chatham Emergency Services, said his mind was with those fighting the fire. He knows these tough days are what our first responders live for.

“This is what we signed up for. When we’re fighting fire, doing remote rescue, first aid, servicing the community - this is what we signed up for. We, this is something we enjoy is service to the community," he said.

Everyone at the Valor Awards agreed, first responders don’t do what they do for recognition. But on days when they are needed, they are certainly worthy of it.

Firefighters remained at the scene Thursday night.

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