Benedict College: County repeats dorm order

Benedict College student Darrissa Brown packed her bags Wednesday night, prepared to leave an off-campus dorm deemed unsafe by the Richland County fire marshal.

"I'm taking my belongings to Florence," said Brown, a 19-year-old junior unnerved by a fire alarm that went off at the dorm Tuesday night while students slept.

It was a false alarm. But the possibility of a real fire at the renovated hotel-turned-dormitory is the backdrop for the county's continued warnings that the building at 1539 Horseshoe Drive is unsafe.

Wednesday, the county issued a news release repeating that Benedict must move its 251 students out of the building.

But, with no one in county administration available Wednesday evening to explain the effect of an "order to evacuate," students were confused and college officials were frustrated.

According to the statement the county issued at 5:25 p.m., the order requires Benedict "to take immediate steps to vacate students from the property, which Richland County deems unsafe" for student housing.

No deadline was given to fix the problems, which came to light the first week of August, just as students were moving in.

The former hotel does not have a sprinkler system. One of two water pumps that affect water pressure necessary to fight a fire does not work properly - all information the county has released previously.

Council chairman Paul Livingston said the statement was meant to demonstrate that Richland County Council members are unanimous in their support of county staff as they press the college for compliance. Council discussed the issue at Tuesday's meeting, and Livingston said he was unaware of the later fire call at the dorm until he heard news reports.

Brown, who is majoring in therapeutic recreation, said college administrators haven't communicated with students about the fire-safety violations. Their only information is coming from news reports.

"It's the talk around campus, it really is," she said. "They just want to know what Benedict's going to do about it and, if they're going to move us, where are they going to move us?"

She had a room on the third floor before deciding she would be better off commuting to campus from Florence.

Brown said she was awakened near midnight Tuesday when someone banged on her door, yelling, "Smoke!" and "Get out!"

Everybody in the building was ordered out, she said, and two firetrucks arrived. She said she heard later that an air conditioner was smoking.

But Columbia's deputy fire chief, Aubrey Jenkins, said it was a false alarm. "That's not unusual for an alarm to activate. We didn't find anything wrong."

Meanwhile, Benedict officials have been working to fix deficiencies in the building's fire-safety system, said Steve Morrison, a lawyer and member of Benedict's board of trustees.

Morrison said he spoke Tuesday with county attorney Larry Smith and, after the fire-safety contractor working at the dorm had questions, delivered a letter asking the fire marshal to clarify what was meant by one of the listed deficiencies.

But Wednesday, Morrison said, he couldn't get anyone from the fire marshal's office on the phone.

Provided a copy of the news release, Morrison said he didn't know what the evacuation order meant and that he was unable to get a copy of the order.

As for where the students might be housed, Morrison said he doesn't know.

"Where can we move them?

"Until this press release, we've had our full energy on getting this building in order. ... The college may, in fact, be exploring that right now."

Then, just before 11 p.m. Wednesday, Morrison issued a statement that said the building at 1539 Horseshoe Drive has "working smoke detectors, functional fire alarms, fully charged fire extinguishers, exit signs, and a fire evacuation route" and a fire watch patrol.

It also said Smith, the county's attorney, returned calls late Wednesday, promising "to try to set up a meeting with the fire marshal."

"It's highly unusual to have a discussion with the government through the media and press releases," Morrison's statement said.

The county has cited the college at least three times, and a court date is set for Oct. 5 before a magistrate on those citations.