Judy Hair misses the ringing of the phone every morning, and the sweet voice that was always on the other end of the line.
“She would call me every morning to check in,” Hair said of her cousin, True Henderson, who was more like a sister to her and lived nearby in the Hollywood-Rose Hill area of Columbia. “We’d talk about what we were doing. We ate together several times a week.”
Those pleasant daily calls came to an abrupt end one Sunday night last January, with a frantic call from Hair’s daughter.
“Aunt True’s apartment is on fire!” Hair, 83, recalled her daughter telling her.
Flames had engulfed the building Henderson lived in at Plantation Court Apartments just after 11 p.m. on Jan. 29, 2017. Henderson, 80, died of smoke inhalation in the blaze, which investigators determined was intentionally set.
Nobody has been arrested.
In the year since, the apartment building has been rebuilt, and federal authorities have joined in the investigation. Henderson’s estate also has filed a lawsuit claiming that negligence by the complex – including lack of adequate smoke detectors and failure to alert tenants of a possible arsonist in the area – led to her death.
“It has been sad,” Hair said of the past year. “She had a lot of life still left in her.”
Federal agents assist in investigation
The complex where Henderson died sits on the 200 block of South Saluda Avenue, just off Rosewood Drive about a mile south of Five Points.
Within a day of the fire, Columbia police said that the blaze was intentionally set, and that they would treat Henderson’s death as a homicide.
They later requested assistance from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which has agents trained specifically in arson and fire investigations, according to Agent Gerod King of the ATF’s Charlotte office.
Intentionally burning a rental property is a federal crime. If the city fire marshal determines that the apartment blaze was intentionally set, King said, the arsonist could be charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in addition to any state charges levied by Columbia police.
More, federal laws provide enhanced penalties if a fire set in a rental property results in death.
Other arsons in the area
The fire that killed Henderson came during a rash of small arsons in the Rosewood area in late November and December 2016, including a fire at Plantation Court in a building adjacent to Henderson’s.
Four days after the fatal apartment fire, Columbia firefighters responded to two fires that torched vacant homes in the nearby Shandon area just hours apart.
Columbia police and SLED agents were working to determine if any of the fires were connected. So far, no charges have been filed in connection with any of the fires.
A Columbia firefighter was sought by police for questioning after surveillance images showed him near the complex the night of the fire. The firefighter was suspended without pay until he was interviewed and cleared by police.
Lawsuit alleges negligence by apartment complex
The lawsuit filed by Henderson’s estate accuses the apartment complex’s owner and manager of negligence, wrongful death and violations of the S.C. Residential Landlord and Tenant Act.
The suit, filed in Richland County Circuit Court by Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian, sheds new light on the fire, which was set in the back common area of Henderson’s building, according to the complaint.
“Smoke and heat filled the unit where Henderson resided,” the complaint reads. “Henderson was in bed at the time of the fire. She stood up from the bed, attempted to move, was overcome by the smoke and heat, and fell back across the bed. Ultimately, Henderson died after some period of time as a result of smoke inhalation.”
The suit says that the apartment owner and manager were “on notice” of two fires that were intentionally set at the complex in December 2016, including one in a building adjacent to Henderson’s.
Among the accusations in the suit:
▪ The keypad entrance code to each building in the complex was the same and had not been changed between the fire on Dec. 16, 2016, and the fatal fire on Jan. 29, 2017.
▪ The doors to enter and exit the building in which Henderson lived did not automatically close and lock as they were designed to, allowing “unfettered access by anyone.”
▪ The apartment buildings did not have automatic fire suppression systems or “adequate smoke/fire detection devices.”
Additionally, the suit says, the owner and manager “did nothing to increase security at the apartment complex or to make the buildings safer or to warn residents about a potential arsonist who had previously started fires in the complex.”
The complex’s owner said in a response to the suit that someone set a small fire in another building of the complex six weeks before the blaze that killed Henderson. The owner and manager denied that the building didn’t have adequate smoke detectors, and they also denied that the complex did not increase security or warn residents of the prior arson incidents.
An attorney for the complex, Damon C. Wlodarczyk, declined to comment further.
Today, the restored apartment building appears ready for new tenants.
Reading, walking and cooking
In the last years of her life, Henderson was increasingly bothered by arthritis in her legs, Hair said. But that didn’t stop her from walking around the neighborhood.
“She walked with a cane, but she walked,” Hair said. “She’d walk up to 2 miles.”
Henderson had a friend she walked with each day, according to the Rev. David Jones, former associate pastor at Shandon Presbyterian Church, where Henderson was a member.
“They would walk every morning with each other and talk about church,” Jones said. “Every now and then you’d get a phone call from them asking you to check on one of their friends who was in the hospital.”
When not walking or reading – she’d check out a few books at a time from the library – Henderson enjoyed cooking, according to Hair.
“The kids’ favorites were her green beans and her biscuits,” she said. “If I said I’m cooking, she said, ‘What can I bring?’”
‘Her smile filled up the room’
At Shandon Presbyterian, Henderson regularly cooked for events and was involved in the church’s Meals on Wheels program, Jones said.
Twice a week, she helped prepare the bulletin and other materials for Sunday worship services.
“Her smile filled up the room,” he said. “She would put others first – typical hospitality-driven personality. She wanted you to know that she was there to love you.”
In Henderson’s final phone call with Hair, just hours before she died, she told Hair she wouldn’t be calling the next day because she was going to church to put the bulletin together.
For Jones, who officiated Henderson’s funeral, comforting a heartbroken congregation meant focusing on how Henderson lived instead of how she died.
“The best way to honor someone’s life is to try and live the kind of life that they did,” he said. “And she was a great example of that.”