Doomed high-rise might be a lifesaver

Downtown Charleston is seen from the Sergeant Jasper, a former apartment building being used by the Charleston Fire Department for training its 330 firefighters.

There was nothing else like it in downtown Charleston, and it’s not likely to be replicated — affordable apartments in a safe location within walking distance of downtown, right by the most scenic lake in the city, with some of the best views anywhere.

Sergeant Jasper apartments opened by Colonial Lake on Broad Street in 1950. It was home to thousands of students and young professionals for nearly seven decades.

It’s coming down next month, destined to be replaced by something fancier.

Meanwhile, the old building is offering one final gift to the community — possibly the gift of life for those caught in house fires.

The Charleston Fire Department is using the 14-story building as a training center for its 330 firefighters.

“It’s very rare anywhere in the country to get a 14-story building to have your way with,” said Ryan Kunitzer, the department’s community educator. “We try to get as close to real-world conditions as possible.”

In a few weeks, the department will bring in smoke machines to simulate an actual fire.

Firefighters have been going through its narrow halls this week, forcing opening doors to the small apartments, practicing rescuing a downed comrade, working drills that will make them more effective against a real fire.

The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office also has been using the building for SWAT team training.

Charleston has few high-rises. The top floor of the Sergeant Jasper is the 15th, even though it’s a 14-story building, because there is no 13th floor. The views from those windows on a sunny day are stunning — Colonial Lake and the Ravenel Bridge from one side, the Ashley River and the marina from the other.

The Beach Co., which is redeveloping the site, has said the next buildings will be four to seven stories. Plans include some apartments, but the price range has not been announced. It’s highly unlikely they will be as affordable as Sergeant Jasper. When residents were told last year that they had to vacate the 220 apartments, a studio was renting for $835 a month, water and electricity included.

The last residents moved out in August. The apartments already have been gutted.

The building is screened off to limit public access. Firetrucks are parked in the back.

It will be taken down floor by floor, starting from the top. No explosives will be used, according to the Beach Co.

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.