Columbia gas leak

Columbia police and firefighters check apartments at the Allen Benedict Court complex on Friday, Jan. 18, 2019,  while evacuating residents after inspectors found severe gas leaks in more than 60 units. File/Andrew Brown/Staff

COLUMBIA — One in four apartments at a Columbia public-housing complex where two men were found dead this week had dangerous gas leaks, forcing the evacuation of more than 400 residents from all units on Friday. 

Columbia Housing Authority Director Gilbert Walker said his agency did not receive constant complaints about gas at Allen Benedict Court. The city responded to seven calls about gas leaks last year, which the fire chief said was not a large number considering the complex has 244 apartments.

But Allen Benedict residents said they have griped about the odor for some time. Troy Herbert, who lived in the complex for 14 years, said she had a small explosion in her apartment from a suspected gas buildup that threw her against a wall in 2016.

"They knew about this,” said Herbert, outside her apartment where the smell of gas remained in the air. "It took all this for them to come out here and realize."

The evacuation highlights the substandard conditions that have been shown to exist in the nation's public housing, where maintenance has been deferred for years. A U.S. Housing and Urban Development-commissioned study estimated the backlog in repairs at $26 billion. More cuts in the public-housing funding have been proposed by the Trump administration. 

Shanta Adams sat on the curb while authorities in hazmat suits tested gas levels and firefighters and police officers hung yellow fliers warning people not to go inside. Residents are headed for hotels where they will stay for at least two weeks while repairs are made. 

Adams said many of the aging apartments struggled with mold and mildew, and it was often hard to tell if the pilot light was lit on the gas heaters.

"These apartments should have been torn down," she said.

Columbia gas leak

A sign on a door of an apartment at Allen Benedict Court in Columbia on Friday informs residents they need to stay away while inspections and repairs take place after gas leaks were found. Andrew Brown/Staff

Allen Benedict Court, built in the 1930s, is set to be torn down and replaced with townhomes like Columbia's other two major public-housing projects. The Columbia Housing Authority was expecting word on a $30 million federal grant this month, but the partial federal government shutdown has delayed processing, Walker said.

Problems at the housing project, less than two miles from the Statehouse, started early Thursday when two men were found dead in separate apartments. Calvin Witherspoon Jr., 61, and Derrick Caldwell Roper, 30, were found after they were reported missing, according to the Richland County Coroner. No cause of death has been released, but foul play was ruled out.  

Investigators detected trace amounts of the gas in the apartments where the men were found as well as in other units in the same building, Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said.

But another report about a strong smell of gas from an apartment in a separate building led Jenkins to have crews check all 244 units at the complex. Over a six-hour period around 4:30 a.m. Friday, investigators checked for leaking gas in all of the apartments. 

In all, high concentrations of gas or carbon dioxide were discovered in 63 apartments, Jenkins said. The gas supply to 33 apartments was shut off, leading to the evacuation of those units. Jenkins said he decided to empty all of Allen Benedict Court so the house authority could conduct more thorough inspections. 

By Friday afternoon, many residents were packing what they could to find another place to stay, and ambulances continued to arrive to transport elderly residents out of the apartments. 

Walker said he was "totally surprised" so many apartments had severe gas leaks. He blamed the readings on normal build up from hot water heaters and stoves in apartments where people had not opened the doors in some time. 

"We have people going in and out all the time, and they never complained," Walker said.

Asked how so many residents could not have noticed the gas leaks, Jenkins said they began to think of the odors as just part of the apartments.

"To them, it was a normal thing," he said.

Columbia gas leak

Ambulance crews evacuate a resident at Allen Benedict Court in Columbia by stretcher after gas leaks were found. Andrew Brown/Staff

Walker said Allen Benedict residents will not have to pay for their hotel rooms and they will get meals. He expects inspections to last two weeks before residents may return. 

Jenkins said, in his opinion, while the apartments could be fixed, they should be abandoned out of an abundance of caution.

State Rep. Todd Rutherford, a Democrat whose district includes the complex, agreed the time had come to close Allen Benedict. He said he is working with state housing officials to find new permanent homes for displaced residents.

"Complaints have gone unnoticed for years," Rutherford said. "This is unacceptable."

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Columbia Bureau Chief

Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.