Community mourns loss of firefighter
Firefighters who were working to put out a fire at a Pineville golf store Saturday night at one point reported that Richard Sheltra was lost in the building but was on his way out, according to an audio recording of communications at the scene.
The recording, which has several unintelligible exchanges between firefighters, appears to capture the following: “Sheltra did not make it out of the building yet. He’s coming now. He got lost. Make sure he gets out of the building.”
Fresh details surrounding the 20-year-old’s death also were disclosed in a Monday afternoon press conference at the Pineville Volunteer Fire Department. Officials there said Sheltra died of smoke inhalation while battling the blaze they described as beginning after lightning struck the Edwin Watts golf store in the Countryside shopping center.
Sheltra, a volunteer firefighter in Pineville for the past three years, was pronounced dead at 10:22 p.m. after being taken to Carolinas Medical Center, fire officials said Monday. One other firefighter was treated at the scene. A third was taken to Carolinas Medical Center and later released.
“Our fire department suffered a tragic loss,” Chief Michael Gerin said at the short press conference. Gerin described Sheltra, the department’s 2015 Rookie of the Year, as a dedicated volunteer who served honorably and nobly.
“It’s a difficult time for all of us, but we will remain strong as a town and as a fire department and a fire service,” Gerin said. He did not take questions.
Fire officials said Monday an investigation is ongoing but provided no additional details into the cause of Sheltra’s death, which Mecklenburg County Assistant Fire Marshal Mike Petleski said resulted from “inhalation (of) products of combustion.” Officials did not say whether Sheltra was wearing proper gear, for example, or if it malfunctioned.
The county’s fire marshal office is the lead investigator in the case, which is also being probed by federal authorities – a situation officials said is normal following a firefighter’s death. Officials said final results could take more than a year.
On Monday, officials noted firefighters were dispatched to Countryside shopping center, 8500 Pineville-Matthews Road, shortly after 9 p.m. after being alerted by the Pineville Police Department of smoke at the building.
Police were already on the scene because they had responded to reports of an alarm going off at the golf store, which had closed at 6 p.m. Saturday.
The fire became a three-alarm blaze as it grew – increasing alarms indicate increasing severity. Units from Charlotte’s fire department also responded.
At 9:35 p.m., a “mayday” was declared at the scene, Petleski said, referring to the distress signal that indicates a firefighter’s life is in jeopardy. Eight minutes later, Sheltra and the other firefighters were taken from the building, Petleski said.
Exchanges on the audio tape capture the moment: “I don’t know what’s wrong with him. We’re dragging him out now.” Another voice says: “OK. 10-4. You have the downed firefighter, is that correct?”
“Yes, sir. That’s correct.”
The audio was posted on the website Statter911.com, run by a former TV reporter.
Pineville’s fire chief reiterated Monday that Sheltra received the most hours of training last year among other members of the department.
Fire officials said the Sheltra family was asking for privacy while they grieve. But others who knew the fallen firefighter shared memories on Monday.
Grant Parker, who first met Sheltra at Quail Hollow Middle School and remained friends with him while the two attended South Mecklenburg High, said Sheltra had a strong interest in the military or becoming a firefighter.
“That’s kind of how he’s being remembered on social media,” said Parker, 21, who went to junior prom with a group of friends that included Sheltra. They all rode to prom in Parker’s father’s SUV and had dinner at Maggiano’s Little Italy in SouthPark.
Parker said the two haven’t been in touch since they graduated in 2013 from South Meck. Parker said he and Sheltra had been involved in Young Life, a Christian-based club for teenagers. While in middle school, the two boys would attend football games at South Meck, where Sheltra later played on the team.
“He was always looking for a strong group of friends,” Parker said. “I think he found a lot of that in becoming a firefighter. That’s one of the things that I haven’t stopped thinking about since I heard the news.”
Friends and acquaintances described the Sheltras as being known for their involvement at South Meck and in the community.
“He had a very strong sense of family,” Parker said. “They’re very well known in south Charlotte. His parents met in high school at South Meck, and so did his cousin’s parents.”
Eric White, who taught Sheltra sports medicine at South Meck and also taught Sheltra’s cousin soccer, described the family as “very close-knit.” In the sports medicine classes, Sheltra showed particular passion for CPR training, about which he seemed to know as much as White did, the teacher said.
“So I always relied upon him as a demonstrator,” White said. He described Sheltra as mild-mannered.
“I had the utmost respect for him,” White said. “He’s just an outstanding young man. He was all about helping others.”
On Monday morning, South Meck held a moment of silence in honor of Sheltra.
“Those at South Meck who knew Richard remembered him fondly as a wonderful young man,” the school’s principal, Maureen Furr, said in a statement. “He will certainly be missed.”
Sheltra’s death appears to be the first loss of a firefighter to a fire in Mecklenburg County since 2002. That’s when Josh Earley, a 23-year-old from Midland, died of injuries sustained while fighting a house fire in eastern Mecklenburg with the Harrisburg Volunteer Fire Department. He was serving with that department on an off day from his full-time job at Station 27 with the Charlotte Fire Department.
On Monday, Pineville firefighters escorted Sheltra’s body as it was transported from the medical examiners office to McEwen Funeral Home. Officials said funeral arrangements are still being made. On Tuesday, plans are to open an account at Charlotte Fire Department Credit Union to collect donations, fire officials said.
Firefighters from around the Charlotte region visited Pineville’s fire station on Monday to pay their respects. Flowers and notes were displayed on two tables at the station.
“To the family of a hero,” one note read. “Thank you for your courage.”