Where There’s Smoke…



Vannessa Persico

On the Friday before Thanksgiving break, a jacket draped over the back of a chair in the basement of Crawshaw House in Bryan Complex caught fire from an unidentified agent smoldering either in or just beneath its pocket. The fire in Room 16 spread to the bunk bed and caused the building to be evacuated and the sprinklers to go off in four rooms.

The pre-alarm, or two percent alarm, in the empty room went off at 11:45 p.m. and Campus Safety officers headed for the room at 11:46 p.m., just as the full alarm began to go off. At 11:47 p.m., Campus Safety contacted the fire department, and at 11:48 p.m., they arrived at the door.

According to Director of Campus Safety Gary Bean, Campus Safety Officers Dan Tucker and Scott Sheldon saw water coming from under the door of Room 16, a sign that the sprinklers had gone off inside, made sure that the door was not hot and then keyed into the room. When they saw that the room was filled with smoke, they closed the door again and waited for the fire department to arrive, which they did at 12:03 a.m. on Saturday morning. Firefighters remained on the scene until 1:52 a.m. evacuating smoke from the hall and neighboring rooms.

“We still do not have any definitive information as to what might have caused the fire,” Bean said. If it had been a cigarette, he said, there probably would have been a cigarette filter among the ashes of the jacket, or else it would have been self-extinguishing.

However, initial rumors that the fire was the result of arson or intentional neglect have proved unsubstantiated.

“By all indications,” Director of Residential Life and Assistant Dean of the College for Residential Education Jennifer Adams said, “It was an accident.” Also, both Adams and Bean denied that the jacket was anywhere near a radiator or that the University’s steam heat system could have caused a fire in such a scenario.

Adams said that there was much less water damage and much less opportunity for mold and mildew by the sprinklers during this incident than there was in Whitnall House in October. Workers from Buildings and Grounds tore out carpet to stop moisture spreading the same night that the fire took place, and laid down tile in time for students to move back into their rooms the next day. In the mean time, students were housed in the Wendt Inn and relied on Campus Safety for transportation to campus.

“Even though [the sprinklers] make a watery mess afterwards, they save buildings and save lives,” Bean said.

However, although cleanup was relatively simple, accounting for all of the students who were supposed to be in the affected rooms proved difficult.

“The situation was made much more challenging because students weren’t in the rooms they were assigned to,” Adams said. She went on to explain that, in the event of building evacuations, Residential Life is asked to produce a roster and account for everyone in the building. However, at least two students had made unauthorized room switches, so there were students who should have been accounted for, whom Res Life did not know to look for, and there were students for whom Res Life was looking who did not in fact live in the building anymore.

Adams pointed out that incidents such as this, when a fire sets off a full alarm and activates the sprinkler system, are somewhat rare at Colgate.

“Probably the last significant one was in an apartment…before I got here,” Adams said.

As Bean said, “It wasn’t just burnt popcorn.”

“No one had a candle burning or the things that regularly cause fires, but things happen,” Adams said. “There weren’t a lot of combustibles in [the room of origin]…People miss what an awful event it could’ve been.”