Investigation into what caused Babcock Building fire continues Monday

The part of the building that caught fire had been around since 1885

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WOLO) — The investigation into what caused Saturday’s three-alarm fire at the historic Babcock Building continued Monday.

Crews were on Bull Street evaluating the damage and seeing the extent the fire had one of Columbia’s historic properties. 

Authorities say they responded to the fire at the building, which had formerly been part of the South Carolina State Hospital, around 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning. Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins told members of the media this was the biggest fire the city had seen in 15 years.

For more than a century, the Babcock Building has been a distinct part of the Capital City’s skyline, with its iconic domed capula peering over the trees as drivers approached the Bull Street Complex on Elmwood Street. The dome could also be seen down the first base line at Segra Park, home of the Columbia Fireflies.

The first part of the building was designed in 1858, with construction being completed on the whole complex, including the central part of the building where the fire did the most damage, in 1885.

“It’s the physical embodiment of how the state took care of mental health patients from the antebellum period, right before the Civil War in the 1850’s, all the way until the third quarter of the twentieth century,” said John Sherrer, the Director of Cultural Resources at Historic Columbia.

Sitting vacant since 1996, the building was set to be converted into an apartment complex as part of the new Bull Street District.

Jenkins told ABC Columbia that his team was able to extinguish the fire Sunday morning, after working the scene for nearly 24 hours. On Sunday, the investigation formally began, with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) and the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) assisting the Columbia Police Department and Columbia Fire Department.

On Monday, investigators were on the scene looking for any evidence on what may have started the fire.

“It takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of hours just to get in because you’ve got to figure everything out, and because you’ve got a lot of burnout on the inside, you’ve got floors collapsed on one another, that’s what makes it difficult,” Jenkins said.

Clachlan Properties, a developer based in Richmond, Virginia, owns the building, was getting ready to prepare the building for revitalization, starting to clean up the site before construction on a new apartment complex would begin.

Robert Hughes, the Master Developer of the Bull Street District and President of the Hughes Development Corporation, released a statement Saturday, saying his team will continue working on the Bull Street District.

The Columbia Police Department announced they had interviewed several people of interest who were sighted near the building early Saturday morning.

Howard Duvall, an at-large member of the Columbia City Council and one of the city leaders who helped with the Bull Street District, said losing a big chunk of the historic Babcock Building impacts the Bull Street District vision, but said he’s glad firefighters were able to contain the fire to just the central part of the building.

“We’ve lost the capula and it would have been a wonderful historic preservation project if we had the original center portion of that building there, but we are resilient in Columbia and we will build back,” Duvall said.

The cause of the Babcock Building fire is still under investigation.

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