‘What do you want me to say?’ CHA commissioner says when asked if board had spoken about Allen Benedict Court apts. deaths, displacements

‘High concentrations’ of toxic gases prompted evacuation of Allen Benedict Court apartments where 2 were found dead, incident report says

‘High concentrations’ of toxic gases prompted evacuation of Allen Benedict Court apartments where 2

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A Columbia Police Department incident report details the discovery of the two men found dead inside of the Allen Benedict Court Apartments earlier this month and says another person was taken by EMS the day before with “effects from the gas leak.”

Calvin Witherspoon, Jr., 62, and 31-year-old Derrick Caldwell Roper, were both found dead in separate apartments on Jan. 17. Richland County Coroner Gary Watts confirmed their cause of death was due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

The report says that one of the men was found "DOA" in his apartment the morning of Jan. 17.

As Columbia police responded to that scene, two Benedict College officers responded to a second apartment to do a welfare check on one of the school’s employees who had not been seen for several days. Once a Columbia Housing Authority employee opened his apartment, they found the man unresponsive “on the hallway floor near the restroom in the apartment.”

As these discoveries were made, the report says the Columbia Fire Department was clearing residents from the building due to a "potential hazard concern."

"The department found high concentrations of hydrogen, cyanide, and carbon monoxide in the building with the mass of the concentration coming from Apt. J2, per Columbia Fire Department.

The report also says that the resident living in apartment J2 was transported to the hospital by EMS with head and back injuries. A fourth resident was also transported on Jan. 16 from the building “with effects from the gas leak.”

After the discovery, Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins and Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook did an inspection of Allen Benedict Court Apartments. In a letter to Columbia Housing Authority Executive Director Gilbert Walker dated Jan. 18, Jenkins listed fire code and property maintenance issues that prompted him to shutter the apartment complex, displacing more than 400 residents.

“Due to the severity of the noted deficiencies, it has been determined that all buildings in this location are unsafe,” the letter says. “The conditions as outlined at Allen Benedict Court constitute a clear and imminent threat to human life, safety, or health in accordance with the International Fire Code section 110.1 and the Property Maintenance Code section 109.1.”

Jenkins then writes that “the most significant violations were the presences in all 26 buildings, of natural gas and carbon monoxide.”

In addition, the Columbia Fire Department says the Columbia Housing Authority was in violation of the International Fire Code. Additionally, thousands of work orders filed by residents of Allen Benedict Court apartments in 2018 reveal a host of maintenance issues along with a dozen complaints about gas leaks and odors across the 26-building complex.

A lawsuit was filed by two tenants on Jan. 23. Their attorneys said they are seeking compensation for the fact tenants have been deprived of a safe and habitable environment that they’ve been paying rent for.

You can view the redacted incident report from the Columbia Police Department here:

Mayor Steve Benjamin interview on Allen Benedict Court Apartments carbon monoxide deaths

WIS spoke with Alexzena Furgess, a commissioner with the Columbia Housing Authority Board about what has transpired at Allen Benedict Court apartments over the last two weeks.

“This upsets me just as much as it does everyone else," Furgess said. "I’m sure everyone else is upset. I’m very upset, it’s unfortunate, it’s unbelievable and that’s all I can say at this time.”

We asked Furgess if board commissioners have spoken with one another ahead of Thursday’s special meeting following the death of two tenants and the evacuation of more than 400 residents due to a long list of risks and fire code violations, including major gas leaks.

“What do you want me to say?” she said. “Except that we’re really sorry it happened.”

Furgess said ahead of Thursday's meeting, she has not spoken with Executive Director Gilbert Walker or her fellow commissioners about the ongoing investigation at Allen Benedict Court Apartments.

Thursday night’s meeting will take place at the Columbia Housing Authority headquarters on Harden Street. According to the housing authority, the meeting will begin at 5 p.m. and will be open to the public.

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