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Sexual pranks, hazing rampant at Columbia fire station before firings, investigation finds

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Columbia firefighters battle a blaze at the historic Babcock building in downtown Columbia on Sept. 12, 2020. Five firefighters at one Columbia station were fired in May after a weekslong sexual misconduct investigation. File/Columbia Fire Department via AP

COLUMBIA — Firefighters at a Columbia station for months chased each other naked through the hallways, spanked coworkers in the shower, and pinned down fellow employees to perform a variety of unwanted sexual acts, according to an internal investigation obtained by The Post and Courier through an open-records request.

The inquiry, which led to the abrupt firing of five firefighters in May, found that supervisors at the Columbia Fire Department's Lower Richland station condoned and sometimes joined in on the pranks, hazing and harassment.

And when the department's internal investigators began asking questions about the behavior, supervisors and firefighters alike sought to cover up their misconduct by dodging questions, lying and omitting key information, the report concluded.

The male-dominated station's unprofessional workplace drove a handful of firefighters to seek reassignment and came to a halt only after one abruptly walked off the job in April, sending a text that sparked the investigation, the report stated.

Nearly 200 pages of records from the investigation, obtained Oct. 1 via the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, shed more light on a scandal that rocked the station on Atlas Road this spring.

Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins has refused to discuss the case, declining several requests for comment. Department spokesman Mike DeSumma has likewise declined to answer any questions on the matter. Neither immediately returned a request for comment for this article.

Sparking an investigation

Disciplinary records, first reported by The Post and Courier this summer, showed the firefighters were terminated after an internal probe into “unacceptable” conversations, “pranks that far exceeded the bounds of professional conduct and inappropriate touching of co-workers at the station.”

The five fired were Battalion Chief Christopher Ryan Gates, fire captains Jason McIntyre and Brandon Cook, fire engineer Dustin Ailes and senior firefighter Patrick Humphries.

Efforts to reach most of the firefighters after the Oct. 1 records release were unsuccessful. Humphries replied with an expletive that he wanted to be left alone.

Those records show three other firefighters were suspended with pay during the investigation but not fired. One of the suspended firefighters resigned April 19, three days after the investigation began.

As one of the city's five battalion chiefs, Gates led the station on Atlas Road south of downtown Columbia. He had served as first vice president of the Columbia Firefighters Association, which advocates for city firefighters. That group did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Gates failed to stop the behavior in the station and dismissed — without a proper investigation — complaints about the sexual harassment from the firefighter who quit his job mid-shift, the investigation determined.

That firefighter, whom The Post and Courier is declining to name in this story, walked out of work April 2 and texted Gates that he "couldn't take the sexual crap anymore."

The man's attorney, Columbia lawyer Jason Reynolds, declined to comment Friday, telling a reporter the newly released investigation "speaks for itself."

According to the report, the firefighter told investigators that his fellow firefighters tried to pull his pants off multiple times, including by dogpiling on top of him. They touched his head, pulled his chest hair and tried to pull off his shirt over his vocal objections. He told investigators he had to run away to escape.

Investigators found that the man's crewmates had an "overwhelming infatuation with comparing penis size," and particularly his.

"Crew members wanted to see his penis and became more and more aggressive about trying to see it," the report stated.

Columbia Fire officials interviewed the man two weeks after he quit.

The day of that interview, Fire Chief Jenkins called for an internal affairs investigation into the station, records show. Investigators later substantiated most of the man's claims, and then some.

'Leadership failure'

Investigators found a culture of pranks, horseplay and coarse conversation at the station.

The antics may have started as playful joking. Firefighters dumped buckets of water or flour on each other. They stuffed glitter bombs in each other's boots.

But soon, investigators found, "the pranks escalated to include unwanted and aggressive touching and restraining."

The conduct was widespread. Nearly everyone participated, from the lowest-ranked firefighters to the supervisors who ran the station.

“Leadership failure occurred among personnel at every rank within Station 8," investigators wrote.

A handful of employees who didn't participate "were ostracized or harassed to the point" that they sought transfers away from the station, investigators found.

Inside the station, firefighters wrestled in the kitchen, dayroom and dormitory, sometimes damaging furniture and blinds, at one point knocking over a set of lockers.

Investigators noted "allegations of wrestling in limited clothing and, perhaps, naked, and grabbing genitals."

Firefighters frequently gave each other wedgies and spanked each other in the shower. Investigators heard one account of one firefighter urinating on another in the shower.

Firefighters fired off inappropriate comments about each other's wives and genitalia, along with "demands to see each other's genitals," according to the report.

"At least one non-medical rectal exam" was performed during dinner in front of multiple employees as a joke, the report states.

Investigators documented a practice called "chair tipping," in which a firefighter would yank a colleague out of his chair and onto the ground, then straddle him and rub his crotch against the coworker's face. They also noted an instance in which a compressed air hose was blown up the pants of a sleeping employee as he was held down by a fire captain.

In a video recovered during the investigation, a nude firefighter was shown being sprayed with a department water hose. "This video implicated multiple employees," investigators wrote.

'Collective cover up'

Investigators interviewed at least 23 employees, six of them twice, before concluding the weeks-long investigation in early May.

Records show Chief Jenkins and other fire officials met with Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook about the investigation on April 29. The next day, Columbia Fire officials met with city legal staff before writing up the employees for personnel infractions.

The report said Gates, the former battalion chief, "knew a great deal about what was going (on), and witness and participated in some of it."

Gates didn't alert Columbia Fire leaders when one of his firefighters quit April 2 and complained about alleged sexual misconduct, investigators wrote.

Later, Gates reported that he investigated the man's allegations and found them "unsubstantiated (and) hurtful." But investigators wrote that Gates' investigation was "incomplete and one-sided."

"Gates never inquired beyond the members of Station 8 and recorded his conclusion before making any contact with (the firefighter who quit)," they wrote.

One of the station's captains instructed firefighters not to use the word "horseplay" in their statements to Gates about the complaint, the report found. All members of the station's first shift lied or misled internal investigators who came asking questions.

"There was a distinct impression, whether planned or unplanned, of a collective cover up," investigators wrote.

The report recommended extensive training for Columbia firefighters and supervisors to ensure they understand the department's mission and core values, as well as its rules against horseplay and hazing.

It also recommended the department also investigate the workplace culture at its other fire stations. It also suggested redesigning fire station locker rooms and showers "to enhance employee privacy."

Reach Avery Wilks at 803-374-3115. Follow him on Twitter at @AveryGWilks. Send tips to

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Avery G. Wilks is an investigative reporter based in Columbia. The USC Honors College graduate was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year for his reporting on South Carolina's nuclear fiasco and abuses within the state's electric cooperatives.

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