COLUMBIA — The second large fire in less than two years heavily damaged Columbia's historic Babcock Building, knocking down its iconic garnet dome on Saturday.
"This building is gone," Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said.
The wooden floors inside the building dating back to 1857 mean it will likely burn into a shell, Jenkins told reporters. Because the fire spread to all three floors and the attic of the landmark building, Jenkins said he could not send firefighters safely inside.
The fire chief said the dome collapsing reminded him of the World Trade Center after the towers were struck by hijacked passenger jets on Sept. 11, 2001.
"We have to be concerned about this building collapsing," Jenkins said. Damage is estimated in the millions.
Flames billowed early Saturday morning from the steeple under the dome that looms over the former 181-acre state mental health site, which is undergoing a massive redevelopment now called BullStreet. The fire could be seen from a mile away.
The building that once housed mentally ill patients and was empty for more than 20 years was slated to become apartments next to a minor-league baseball stadium. A key approval to start construction was expected next week.
The dome, formally known as a cupola, fell amid the heavy flames. Embers from the falling cupola burned the neck of one firefighter, and a second firefighter was taken to the hospital after being injured from falling debris, Jenkins said.
Roger Brasley was on his way to opening his Marion Street hair salon near the BullStreet site when he saw the Babcock Building ablaze.
"I thought it was something out of a movie," Brasley said. "It was monstrous."
Brasley said he could feel the heat of the fire from a couple of blocks away as he shot video of the cupola collapsing.
"This is just so sad," said Brasley, a Columbia native. "It's been there for so long."
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who has spearheaded redevelopment efforts at BullStreet, said losing the Babcock Building "hurts." The Babcock Building stood out with its distinctive garnet cupola in the Columbia skyline, leading many visitors and new residents to think it was the S.C. Statehouse, he said.
"The city grew up around it. It has been such a centerpiece of the architectural fabric of Columbia. This is the equivalent of our Notre Dame fire," Benjamin said in reference to the 2019 fire that heavily damaged the French cathedral. "The building cannot be brought back."
John Sherrer, director of cultural resources at Historic Columbia, called Saturday's fire "what really would be my worst nightmare."
Sherrer said preservationists were excited for its second act as a modern residential complex in the heart of downtown.
"It was going to be a key component of the rehabilitation of the BullStreet district," he said.
Columbia Police released surveillance photos late Saturday of six people in a red pickup truck who were seen in the area at the time of the fire.
The Columbia Fire Department first responded around 6:30 a.m. and found heavy flames throughout the 254,000-square-foot building, Jenkins said.
More than 50 firefighters, including some from Fort Jackson, battled the three-alarm blaze from outside the building in what Jenkins said was the department's biggest response in 15 years. Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and State Law Enforcement Division were on site.
By the evening, smoldering hot spots were spread across the building, and firefighters were expected to work overnight dousing them, Jenkins said. An investigation will begin Sunday.
The cause is unknown, Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook said. The building has been empty for years and attracts sightseers as well as the homeless.
A large fence encircled the building to keep people away but police have responded to reports of people inside in recent years, Holbrook said. People often compared the abandoned building with its broken windows, boarded doorways and graffiti to an old haunted house.
Overnight Friday, vandals threw rocks to break windows and doors at a nearby BullStreet property, the Soco coworking space, co-founder Greg Hilton said. Police are investigating.
"We've dealt with vagrancy issues on the (Babcock) property for years, but things have gotten much better since there's been 24-hour security on the premises," Holbrook said. "We aren't making any assumptions" about what may have sparked the fire."
A fire in a different part of the large Babcock Building caused $400,000 in roof damage in December 2018. A state investigation was unable to determine a cause for the fire because the blaze was large enough to destroy evidence of its origin.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Babcock was built in four stages in 1857 to 1885 amid a push to improve facilities for a growing population of mentally ill patients. Construction took so long because of the Legislature's reluctance to fund what was then known as the state Lunatic Asylum as well the disruption from the Civil War, according to the building's landmark application with the U.S. Department of the Interior.
With its entrance of tall pillars, the building is considered by historians as an example of Italian Renaissance Revival design. The 12-sided metal cupola was added as construction finished.
Much of the BullStreet site was abandoned until Greenville developer Robert Hughes was brought in by the city of Columbia to redevelop the old state health complex.
In addition to the baseball stadium for the Columbia Fireflies, BullStreet includes an office building, townhomes, a church and a senior living center as well a REI outdoors retailer. Construction has begun on a Starbucks near the REI store and stadium.
Officials from BullStreet, who use the cupola in their logo, said the damage was contained to the central part of the building.
"It is impossible to properly express our deep emotions as Columbia firefighters continue to battle the fire at the Babcock Building," Robert Hughes, whose company is developing the BullStreet site, said in a statement. "For many decades, the community has worked together to preserve one of South Carolina’s most iconic buildings. It is a labor of love for so many people who cherish its historical significance."
In January, the Babcock Building was transferred to Clachan Properties, a historic redeveloper based in Richmond, Va., for conversion into more than 200 apartments. The conversion was meant to take advantage of the Babcock’s more than 1,000 windows and to work around such design features as it its thick walls, more than 20 inches thick in places.
In January, Clachan said it hoped to have some apartments ready for occupancy in the second half of 2021 and all 208 ready in 2022.
Erica Roland and her boyfriend Charlie Green, a Columbia native, take monthly trips to the city’s Bull Street district, drawn by its architecture and history.
The couple spent their Friday walking the grounds and sharing photos on social media, and returned Saturday morning in shock at the Babcock building’s condition.
“I’ve been crying the whole time,” said Roland. “This is our favorite building.”