COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Five months after two men were found dead inside their public housing apartments from carbon monoxide poisoning, the Columbia Housing Authority says CO detectors have been installed in all of its units with fuel-burning appliances.
Derrick Roper and Calvin Witherspoon Jr. were found dead on Jan. 17 after Roper’s employer requested a welfare check when he didn’t show up for work. He was found dead in the hallway of his apartment J1, while two doors down, Witherspoon was found dead in his bed.
The Richland County Coroner ruled both men’s death the result of carbon monoxide poisoning. The day after the two men were found, the Allen Benedict Court complex was evacuated, forcing its 411 residents to find a temporary place to live. The Columbia Fire Department found more than a dozen fire code violations and maintenance problems across the property, including the presence of carbon monoxide in all 26 buildings.
Allen Benedict Court was shut down after several days of consideration, forcing its residents to find a new permeant home. A Freedom of Information Request filed by WIS revealed between Jan. 18 and March 6, 2019, the housing authority spent more than $756,000 helping displaced residents by placing them in hotels and providing food and transportation.
But five months after the tragedy, the Columbia Housing Authority says all of the former residents have found a new place to live, meaning none are living in hotels. It also said carbon monoxide detectors have been installed in every unit with a fuel-burning appliance, as is required by law.
Executive Director Gilbert Walker is scheduled to retire on June 30, after making the announcement in February, mere weeks after the two men were found dead. The authority said interim executive director Ivory Mathews, who currently runs the Greenville Housing Authority, is slated to take over on July 1.
Hemphill Pride, an attorney representing former Allen Benedict Court tenants, says the city of Columbia is responsible for the tragedy, too.
“The Columbia Housing Authority is an extension of the city of Columbia,” he said. “Who picks the people that run the place? And the city of Columbia seems to want to distance themselves—and I don’t blame them—because they should be embarrassed, they should be embarrassed.”
Columbia City Council members appoint the commissioners on the Columbia Housing Authority Board and they’re able to remove commissioners too. The city does not own or directly operate the housing authority.
Pride said while residents have found new permeant housing, it’s only the beginning for many.
“Most of them are not young people,” he said. “They’ve got to adjust to new neighbors, a new community, a new bus line, some of them a new school with children…all kinds of impositions caused by not following the rules.”
In April, the Department of Housing and Urban Development began drafting the first federal rule to require carbon monoxide detectors in public housing complexes nationwide.