Insurance company sues S.C. city over faulty hydrants in 2021 blaze
Westchester Surplus Lines Insurance Company alleges Columbia officials were negligent in inspecting, maintaining the hydrants
By Morgan Hughes
COLUMBIA, S.C. — A Columbia-area apartment complex was going up in smoke. Residents were being evacuated. But as firefighters prepared to battle the blaze, they encountered a problem.
A nearby fire hydrant wasn’t supplying water, while other nearby hydrants weren’t supplying water with enough pressure. The problems with the fire hydrants led to a delay in putting out the fire, leading to more damage to the apartments, a lawsuit filed against the city of Columbia claims.
Westchester Surplus Lines Insurance Company is suing the city of Columbia for $4.9 million, alleging the city was negligent during a September 2021 fire in the Seven Oaks area. The lawsuit claims Columbia was negligent in inspecting and maintaining the fire hydrants near the Peachtree Place apartment complex at 200 Berryhill Road.
Earlier this year, the Professional Fire Fighters Association of South Carolina made a similar accusation after another destructive apartment fire, saying a fire hydrant near the Tropical Ridge apartments in the St. Andrews area was not functioning when crews arrived to battle an apartment fire May 26. Irmo firefighter James Muller died while fighting that blaze, and several other firefighters were hospitalized.
The circumstances of the Tropical Ridge fire are under investigation by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which investigates cases in which a firefighter dies.
Cause of fire that killed S.C. firefighter determined
Irmo firefighter James Michael Muller was killed and six others injured during a collapse while fighting an apartment fire
In regard to the 2021 fire, the city of Columbia “knew or should have known that its complete failure to service, maintain, repair, replace and inspect all fire hydrants ... would result in harm,” the lawsuit filed by the insurance company alleges.
The city declined to make anyone available to comment on the lawsuit or to elaborate on the procedures for inspecting fire hydrants.
“The City of Columbia does not comment on matters related to pending litigation,” city spokesperson Leshia Utsey said via email.
In an answer to the lawsuit, however, the city broadly denies the negligence claim but does note that it “is without sufficient information to admit or deny the allegations” regarding the dead and low-flow hydrants.
Westchester Surplus Lines provided property insurance for the 13-building apartment complex called Peachtree Place at 200 Berryhill Road on the border of Lexington and Richland counties. The apartment is in Lexington County, but Columbia Water maintains the fire hydrants and water utility lines in the area.
A fire broke out in one of the buildings around noon Sept. 11, 2021, and residents were evacuated. Irmo, Columbia, West Columbia and Lexington County fire departments all responded to the fire, the suit adds.
Irmo Fire Chief Michael Sonefeld, previously said the department received the call around noon that day, but it took until around 4 p.m. until the fire was considered under control.
Several firefighters also reported minor injuries while battling the 2021 blaze.
The fire was severe and caused structural collapses, a smoke explosion and a mayday, which is called when a firefighter is in peril. As emergency crews were attempting to control the blaze, Irmo Fire encountered a “dead-hydrant” and several low-flow hydrants, according to the lawsuit, filed Sept. 1.
Irmo Fire called the city of Columbia to ask for an increase in water pressure and requested three additional water tanker trucks to supplement the water supply, according to the lawsuit.
The dead hydrants and other low-flow hydrants delayed the ability of emergency services to suppress the fire, the lawsuit claims.
The fire caused almost $5 million worth of damage, the suit claims. The insurance company claims the city of Columbia should be the one to pay the bill. Now, it wants a jury to decide.
Charlotte-based attorney Zachary Renegar is representing the insurance company. Renegar was not immediately reached by The State.
An attorney for the city, William Hemlepp, responded to the suit Sept. 14 with a “general denial” of the negligence claim. Hemlepp wrote that if the city of Columbia was negligent, “which is denied,” then the property owner “was likewise negligent or grossly negligent.” The city’s response cites third-party negligence and potential third-party criminal acts among its defenses as well, saying the city is not liable for what a third-party may have done.
The suit was originally filed in Richland County. The case has now been moved to Lexington County because that is the location of the Peachtree Place apartments.
A ‘low-flow’ area
Sonefeld, the Irmo Fire chief, told The State that because of aging infrastructure in parts of the Columbia Water system, his department has come to expect low-flow hydrants in some areas.
“It’s just a low-flow area down there,” he said of where the Peachtree Place apartments are located, which is in the Seven Oaks area near the Interstate 20 and Interstate 26 interchange. (The Irmo Fire Department is not a party in the lawsuit.)
Sonefeld said it’s not common to encounter dead hydrants without knowing about them beforehand. Columbia Water typically sends a weekly report to update the fire department on the status of the hydrants in its area.
Irmo Fire’s jurisdiction encompasses about 1,400-1,600 hydrants, Sonefeld estimated.
“If I have eight out of service and I know it, I can work around it,” he said.
If they get called to a low-flow area, they’ll know to bring more water tankers along, for example.
But, “If you get there and it just goes wrong, you’re going to have delays,” Sonefeld added.