Columbia complex where 2 died evacuated after officials find multiple gas leaks

Columbia public safety officials on Friday ordered an evacuation of the Allen Benedict Court public housing units on Harden Street after two men were found dead following a gas leak, according to Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin.

Though the Richland County coroner said a cause of death had not been officially determined, Benjamin said during a news conference that officials believe the gas leak is to blame.

Authorities found numerous gas leaks across the entire complex while investigating the Thursday deaths, Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said.

“As we went through building after building ... we discovered that multiple units have gas leaks,” Jenkins said. “ ... We view this as an immediate danger to life.”

The two men who were found dead were identified Friday as Calvin Witherspoon Jr., 61, and Derrick Caldwell Roper, 30, according to a statement from Richland County Coroner Gary Watts. An autopsy was performed, but the coroner was awaiting further tests Friday.

Foul play is not suspected, the coroner said.

As the announcement was made, Peter Williams moved his belongings from his unit into his car. He’s lived in Allen Benedict Court — a more than 80-year-old public housing complex — for more than five years, he said.

“Everybody has to go,” Williams said the authorities told him and others at Allen Benedict Court. “I got to pack what I can pack.”

Jenkins said an inspection showed that 63 units had heightened levels of hazardous gases. In total, 411 residents of the 26 buildings were ordered to leave.

Williams planned to pay for a hotel room Friday night, but Benjamin said the city and the Housing Authority would work with local hotels to find places for all the residents.

Authorities handed out fliers explaining the evacuation to residents and posted signs on the housing units saying the buildings were no longer habitable. At least three safety workers wore hazmat suits as they checked inside of the units.

Williams said he had smelled gas before in Allen Benedict Court and heard others complain about the problem as well. He’s not had problems in his unit but said he was “very concerned” about the reported problem during the last four months.

Columbia fire officials responded to the complex seven times in 2018 after residents said they smelled gas, Jenkins said, adding that the odors came from leaking stoves or water heaters.

Others living in the public housing community also said they’ve experienced issues with odors, the smell becoming so severe for one man that he became dizzy and had to go to the hospital.

“I had to get up out of there,” Rodricus Walker said.

Walker keeps his windows open to help with the nauseating smell.

Gilbert Walker, the executive director of the Columbia Housing Authority, which oversees Allen Benedict Court, said his agency has addressed issues of gas smells over the months and that the housing authority is required to take care of problems within 24 hours.

“We try to take care of problems as quick as we can,” Walker said.

Jenkins said the units are not equipped with carbon monoxide monitors, which are not required. Now, the fire department is recommending the monitors be installed in every unit.

The Columbia Housing Authority has reserved 40 hotel rooms for residents and will be providing people with meals and transportation, Walker said. Anyone needing housing will receive it, according to Benjamin.

How long people will be out of their homes is unclear. Walker called the evacuation a “temporary action,” while Jenkins said the fire department will work “as long as it takes” to make the units safe.

The city planned to shut off the main gas line to the complex, Jenkins said. From there, a third party will come in and evaluate the issues.

“Until then, without a doubt, this property will remain vacant,” Benjamin said.

The mayor said he spoke with elderly inhabitants and parents of a toddler about the problem and the evacuation.

“It’s trying on our souls and hearts,” Benjamin said. “We’re going to do every single thing we possibly can.”

Just before the comments, Williams pulled into the courtyard between unit F and G and packed what he could into his car. He drove away from Allen Benedict Court.

“This is what we got to do. This is life,” Williams said. “It’s an uncertain thing now.”

Emily Bohatch helps cover South Carolina’s government for The State. She also updates The State’s databases. Her accomplishments include winning a Green Eyeshade award in Disaster Reporting in 2018 for her teamwork reporting on Hurricane Irma. She has a degree in Journalism with a minor in Spanish from Ohio University’s E. W. Scripps School of Journalism.
David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.