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Councilman calls for Housing Authority director to resign after 2 die from gas leaks

Columbia resident describes emotions of being evacuated because of gas leaks

Allen Benedict Court resident Keith Wise shares his experience of being evacuated following a gas leak that claimed the lives of two people.
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Allen Benedict Court resident Keith Wise shares his experience of being evacuated following a gas leak that claimed the lives of two people.

The director of the Columbia Housing Authority should resign after two men were found dead and multiple gas leaks reported in government-run apartments last week, a Columbia city councilman said Thursday.

Councilman Moe Baddourah is calling for CHA director Gilbert Walker and possibly others to step down as more than 400 extremely low-income people have been abruptly ousted from their homes at the Allen Benedict Court public housing complex.

Two men, 61-year-old Calvin Witherspoon Jr. and 30-year-old Derrick Caldwell Roper, were found dead in separate apartments at Allen Benedict Court last week amid reports of widespread gas leaks at the complex. While Richland County Coroner Gary Watts has not determined what killed the men, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said Friday they died from a gas leak.

More than 400 residents living in 26 apartment buildings were ordered to leave their homes last Friday.

“It was especially disheartening to learn just how preventable this tragedy was,” Baddourah said in an email to Benjamin and fellow council members Thursday morning. “That residents remained in the apartments despite a number of complaints about gas leak smells indicates, at the very least, negligence. Frankly, someone must be held accountable.”

“While City Council lacks direct oversight over the Authority, we do have indirect oversight through the selection of Commissioners. I propose a special City Council meeting to discuss our options for imposing accountability,” Baddourah continued. “Personally, and after very careful consideration, I believe a resignation or resignations are in order, including the resignation of the Authority director. It’s important to have confidence in the Authority’s leadership during the process of finding accommodations for those who have been displaced. Furthermore, citizens should have the peace of mind that adequate accountability is in place to prevent a similar tragedy in the future.”

On Jan. 17, Witherspoon and Roper were found dead in the same building but separate apartments at Allen Benedict Court.

After the bodies were found, the fire department inspected other buildings in the public housing complex and found heightened levels of hazardous gas. The hours-long inspection found 63 living units with heightened levels.

Residents of 33 of those units were ordered to immediately evacuate, resulting in 81 people leaving, Columbia Fire Department Chief Aubrey Jenkins said.

Columbia public safety officials ordered a complete evacuation of the Allen Benedict Court on the afternoon of Jan. 18, resulting in 411 residents of the 26 buildings being displaced.

The Columbia Housing Authority, which oversees Allen Benedict Court, has set up temporary housing, transportation and meals for those who were displaced, the organization said.

Residents who spoke with The State said they had complained of odors and gas smells in the months prior, 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.

The fire department responded to complex seven times in 2018 after residents said they smelled gas, according to Jenkins.

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