The Gills Creek watershed’s 70-mile winding network of normally calm lakes, dams and placid streams turned killer Sunday, when its rising waters trapped two Columbia motorists in their vehicles a mile apart and swept them to their deaths.
Along with a record 16-inch rainfall Sunday in the Gills Creek watershed area, two of its dozen or so dams broke – the Cary Lake dam and the Rockbridge Road dam, Richland County council member Jim Manning said at a Monday news conference. Another dam, Overcreek Bridge dam, broke later Monday.
One person died in the area where Gills Creek flows under Kilbourne Road along Shady Lane, just off Fort Jackson Boulevard, Richland County coroner Gary Watts said Monday. Melissa Lee Hall, 35, apparently drowned while trapped in her vehicle, Watts said.
A mile away, another person died where Gills Creek flows under Devine Street, near where Fort Jackson Boulevard meets Beltline Boulevard, officials said. The body of Robert McCarty, 68, was found in a once-submerged vehicle behind Staples, which is in the Crossroads (Bi-Lo) Commons shopping center, just west of Gills Creek. He apparently drowned, Watts said.
On Monday, the low-lying Devine Street bridge over Gills Creek at Fort Jackson Boulevard remained closed, blocking off a major commuter route that becomes Garners Ferry Road, which connects lower Richland County to downtown Columbia.
Police diverted traffic to a several-block detour while engineers assessed the structural damage to the Devine Street bridge. The S.C. Department of Transportation had no information on when the bridge might re-open. That agency will make the decision to re-open, repair or permanently replace that bridge.
That bridge has a span of only about 20 yards, but erosion of underlying pavement just off the bridge on its western side was plainly visible Monday, and a stretch of road already was starting to buckle.
Also on Monday, in a low-lying neighborhood where Burwell Lane runs parallel to Gills Creek behind the new Whole Foods in Cross Hill Market, residents carried soaked belongings from their houses and gave thanks their lives were spared Sunday.
“I thank the Lord my 2-week old woke us up at 2 a.m. (Sunday),” said John Reading, 34, whose one-story brick home’s backyard is just yards from Gills Creek. Once he was awake, Reading said he could hear water coming into his basement, soon so fast its pressure “blew the back basement door off.”
Within minutes, he and his wife, Elizabeth, 30, grabbed their daughter, Mary, 3, and infant Ann Tucker, a few belongings and escaped with their cars – and their lives. “As bad as this is, we know there are people in much worse shape,” he said.
Gills Creek Watershed begins just below the Hughes Pond near the Village at Sandhill shopping center in northeast Richland County, flows through and by Spring Valley, Sesquicentennial State Park, Fort Jackson, Forest Acres, Arcadia Lakes, through the 157-acre Lake Katherine, southeastern Columbia, I-77, Heathwood Hall Episcopal School and then out to the Congaree River.
Some 140,000 households – more than 200,000 people – live within the watershed, which loosely defined is an area of land between two ridges that drains all of its water to downstream lakes or the Congaree. Thousands of people and many businesses live just slightly above the creek’s elevation.