‘Lethal’ gas, other hazards found at public housing complex, fire chief says

Residents at Columbia’s Allen Benedict Court public housing complex faced “a severe risk” from the presence of natural gas, according to a letter written by Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins after two men were found dead in separate apartments at the complex.

The letter was sent to Gilbert Walker, executive director of the Columbia Housing authority, on Jan. 18, the same day the complex was evacuated. Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said the two men found dead died from a gas leak, but the Richland County Coroner has said more testing needs to be done before he can determine the cause of death.

Carbon monoxide detected in several of the apartments was “severe and lethal,” Jenkins wrote in the letter. Stoves showed evidence of leaking gas.

Smoke alarms were missing in some of apartments and out of date in others, the letter said. Other smoke detectors didn’t work when tested. Several fire extinguishers were out of date and had not been serviced since 2016, he said.

Beyond the fire hazards, apartments also had sever maintenance issues, the letter says.

Several living spaces were infested with roaches and possibly bed bugs. There was a high volume of rodent droppings and cobwebs on household items. Charring appeared in the closets of a number of apartments.

“Due to the severity of the noted deficiencies, it has been determined that all buildings at this location are unsafe,” the letter said. “The conditions as outlined at Allen-Benedict Court constitute a clear and imminent threat to human life, safety or health.”

The Columbia Housing Authority’s lawyer Bob Coble sent this statement concerning the letter.

“The Columbia Housing Authority will not comment on the letter from the Columbia Fire Chief while the matter is under investigation. We have the greatest respect for the Chief and all the City of Columbia officials involved in the matter. They are all doing their jobs.

“Director Walker and his staff are committed to taking care of the humanitarian needs of all the Columbia Housing Authority residents impacted by these events and this relocation. We are heartbroken over the deaths of two of our residents and these victims and their families are in our prayers. Additionally, the Columbia Housing Authority will continue to work closely with the City of Columbia in dealing with the needs of these residents.”

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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.