How Four Individuals Became 'Water Heroes'

Sep 19, 2016

The view just outside of the Columbia Metro Wastewater Treatment Plant during October's flood.
Credit David Wiman

South Carolina's largest wastewater treatment plant had spent a week preparing for a hurricane in early October last year. The rain started, winds were blowing, but instead of a hurricane, South Carolina got a flood -- the worst it's seen in years. Cooper McKim reports how four individuals stayed behind to keep the plant running.

The road just outside of the Columbia Metro Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Credit David Wiman

Sunday morning, the roads leading up to the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant went from accessible to impassible within hours. The plant's superintendent, David Wiman, met with around twenty employees and administrators to discuss possibilities. He knew one thing -- he did not want to close up shop: "If we shut down this plant, it's going to back up into the lines and into the city and the neighborhoods, and that didn't sit right with us."

But he also didn't know how they could keep it running. Without operators, the only option was to leave the screw pump moving sewage from one end of the plant to the other. Best case scenario, semi-treated sludge floods into the river, likely getting into the public water system.  

Basin flooded and not at Columbia Metro Wastewater Treatment Plant
Credit David Wiman/Vince Kolb-Lugo

In the Command Center that Sunday morning, Wiman was frustrated.  The plant averages 33 million gallons of sewage treatment per day. Right now, they were seeing 156 million. "There's no manual where you flip open and go what do you do if you're three times design," says Wiman.

Wiman then came up with an idea, to "evacuate everybody, but leave a skeleton crew." Without hesitation, four operators volunteered: Adrian Martin, Brandon Wilcox, Ashley Dove, and James Foust. 

Adrian Martin is one of the plant's chief operators. He says he was more worried about people on the outside than himself. Still, the four operators faced the possibility of a massive dike breaking right next to them. Martin's response: "If [that happens] and this gets flooded, we'll get on top of the admin building or the incineration building, we'll just camp up there and we should be fine."

"I think none of us slept any more than an hour or two... I took a little quick nap with my head on the desk."

Brandon Wilcox was similarly unconcerned at the start, until he got a call from his fiancée: "she said she woke up and... the water was a couple inches deep." On top of the that, their wedding was planned for the next weekend.

All their possessions were in the house getting flooded. Wilcox says he felt helpless: "mostly I just kept busy since there was really nothing I could do."

Meanwhile, the four operators traded off maintenance tasks, made sure basins didn't overflow, and tried to get the sewage as well-treated as possible with their limited resources. 

"For that initial couple days... I think none of us slept any more than an hour or two. I think I took a little quick nap with my head on the desk -- that was about an hour, and then we started having issues with the head-works. So that was the end of that," Wilcox says.

To eat, they had whatever the previous shift had left in the fridge. Wilcox explains, "we were pretty much raiding the fridge at that point, we had potato chips, muffins, and that was about it." Plus ham sandwiches.

After two days of dealing with maintenance tasks across the plant, the national guard helped pull them out onto I-77 where their rides picked them up.

Helicopter view of the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant
Credit David Wiman

This past July, the four were given the national Water Heroes Award for "actions that prevented raw sewage from pouring into the river, surrounding neighborhoods and city streets." 

Plant superintendent David Wiman nominated them. He's glad they're being recognized because at the time, they were just doing what they felt was right: "they weren't wearing capes, they weren't getting the glory, they had no idea."

Adrian Martin
Credit Vince Kolb-Lugo/SC Public Radio
Brandon Wilcox
Credit Vince Kolb-Lugo/SC Public Radio